One of the customers has asked the origin of the phrase “dab hand.” A “dab hand,” more used in the British Commonwealth countries than in the United States, is an expert. It is usually followed by “at” and the subject in which the person is adept, i.e. “a dab hand at tiddly-winks” or “a dab hand at mixing smooth Martinis.”
The Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest use of “dab hand” in 1828 in a dialectical dictionary It was Yorkshire dialect and did not enter widely into mainstream English until the mid-20th century.
“Dab” by itself, also meaning “expert,” appeared in 1691 in the Athenian Mercury, a semi-weekly London periodical that doled out advice on a variety of subjects. Love is “such a Dab at his Bows and Arrows,” it opined. In the Dictionary of the Canting Crew, a glossary of criminal slang, published in 1698, dab is defined as “an exquisite expert” in some sort of roguery. Dab was incorporated into schoolboy slang by the early 19th century.
Etymologists do not appear to be dab hands at explaining the origin of the phrase. Some say dab is derived from Old Dutch dabben and German tappen, which in the 13th century meant “administer a sharp blow.” The meaning was later softened into “pressing lightly,” as in the phrase “dab at.”
Other not-so-dab hands think it may be a corruption of the word adept, or possibly dapper.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not yet discovered the subject at which he is a dab hand. It certainly isn’t versifying, as you can see for yourself.
When caught in a lie, don’t retract,
Or the lie will lose its impact,
To be a dab hand
And remain in command,
Say it's just an alternative fact.