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Mute swans (Cygnus olor) dabbling in water for food (verb sense 3)

From earlier dable, equivalent to dab +‎ -le (frequentative suffix), possibly from Middle Dutch dabbelen (to pinch; knead; to fumble; to dabble);[1] cognate with Icelandic dafla (to dabble).



dabble (third-person singular simple present dabbles, present participle dabbling, simple past and past participle dabbled)

  1. (transitive) To make slightly wet or soiled by spattering or sprinkling a liquid (such as water, mud, or paint) on it; to bedabble. [from late 16th c.]
    • 1640, I. H. [i.e., James Howell], “A Character of Itelia”, in ΔΕΝΔΡΟΛΟΓΊΑ [DENDROLOGIA]. Dodona’s Grove, or, The Vocall Forrest, London: [] T[homas] B[adger] for H. Mosley [i.e., Humphrey Moseley] [], →OCLC, page 32:
      The Itelians [] reſpectleſſe of gentry, of few words, for they barrell up commonly more then they can broach, and ſo may be ſaid to be like a great bottle with a narrow necke; yet they are moſt cunning and circumſpect in negotiating, ſpecially when they have bin tampering with the Vine or the hop, and are dabbled a little with their liquor.
    • 1783, George Armstrong, “Rules to be Observed in the Nursing of Children: With a Particular View to Those who are Brought Up by Hand”, in An Account of the Diseases Most Incident to Children, from the Birth till the Age of Puberty; with a Successful Method of Treating Them. To which is Added, an Essay on Nursing: With a Particular View to Children who are Brought Up by Hand. Also a Short General Account of the Dispensary for the Infant Poor, new edition, London: Printed for T[homas] Cadell, in the Strand, →OCLC, page 176:
      If ſhe [the nurse] obſerves that the ſkin ſeems any where to be chafed, after dabbling the part very well with cold water, and drying it gently with a fine cloth, let her apply ſome common powder to it, by means of a ſoft puff.
  2. (transitive) To cause splashing by moving a body part like a bill or limb in soft mud, water, etc., often playfully; to play in shallow water; to paddle.
    The children sat on the dock and dabbled their feet in the water.
    • 1818, [Mary Shelley], Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. [], volumes (please specify |volume=I to III), London: [] [Macdonald and Son] for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, →OCLC:
      The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.
  3. (intransitive, of waterfowl) To feed without diving, by submerging the head and neck underwater to seek food, often also tipping up the tail straight upwards above the water.
    • 2002, [Maurice Burton; Robert Burton], “Mallard”, in International Wildlife Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, volumes 11 (LEO–MAR), Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, →ISBN, page 1525:
      When a duck dabbles its bill in mud, it is using the lamellae (transverse plates) on the inner edges of its bill as a highly efficient filter. As the duck dabbles, its tongue acts as a piston, sucking water or mud into the mouth and driving it out again. Only the edible particles are left behind on the lamellae.
  4. (intransitive, figuratively) To participate or have an interest in an activity in a casual or superficial way.
    She’s an actress by trade, but has been known to dabble in poetry.
    • 1692 April 4, Richard Bentley, “Matter and Motion Cannot Think: Or, A Confutation of Atheism from the Faculties of the Soul. The Second Sermon Preached April 4. 1692.”, in The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism Demonstrated from the Advantage and Pleasure of a Religious Life, the Faculties of Humane Souls, the Structure of Animate Bodies, & the Origin and Frame of the World: In Eight Sermons Preached at the Lecture Founded by the Honourable Robert Boyle, Esquire; in the First Year, MDCXCII [1692], 4th corr. edition, London: Printed by J. H. for H. Mortlock at the Phœnix in St. Paul's Church-Yard, published 1699, →OCLC, page 63:
      And now that I have finiſhed all the parts, which I propoſed to diſcourſe of; I will conclude all with a ſhort application to the Atheiſts. And I would adviſe them as a Friend, to leave off this dabbling and ſmattering in Philoſophy, this ſhuffling and cutting with Atoms.
    • 1793 July, “[Monthly Catalogue, for July, 1793.] Art. 57. Sprigs of Laurel: A Comic Opera, in Two Acts. As Performed, with Universal Applause, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Written by John O’Keeffe. 8vo. 1s. Longman. 1793.”, in [Ralph Griffiths], editor, The Monthly Review; or Literary Journal, Enlarged, volume XI, London: Printed for R[alph] Griffiths; and sold by T[homas] Becket, in Pall Mall, →OCLC, page 347:
      The politics too, for it [the opera] dabbles in politics, are evidently not written from the heart, for the ſentiments contradict each other, but from the paultry motive of catching applauſe, be it juſt or unjuſt, moral or immoral.
    • 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen, “Introduction”, in Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism, Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, →ISBN, page 1:
      His [Alfred Hitchcock's] work is a mirror of cinematic development: from silent to sound, from black and white to color, from the shoestring productions of his early London years to the expensive vehicles of his Hollywood period. In the process, he dabbled in technical innovations such as 3-D and VistaVision, experimened in special effects and editing techniques, and developed an extensive repertoire of original camera setups and shots.
  5. (intransitive, obsolete) To interfere or meddle in; to tamper with.
    • 1731, Simon Scriblerus [pseudonym], Whistoneutes: Or, Remarks on Mr. [William] Whiston’s Historical Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Samuel Clarke, &c., London: Printed for T. Warner, at the Black-Boy in Pater-Noster-Row, →OCLC, pages 3–4:
      [A fellow of a college in Cambridge] freely confeſs'd, that he had for many Years been ranſacking Antiquity, in order to be the Author of ſome new Heresy or Opinion; and that after all his Searches, he cou'd think or fix upon nothing, but what on Fool or another had been meddling and dabbling with.


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dabble (plural dabbles)

  1. A spattering or sprinkling of a liquid.
    • 1858 May 22, “Fine Arts. Royal Academy.”, in The Athenæum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music and the Drama, number 1595, London: Printed by James Holmes, Took's Court, Chancery Lane, published at the office, 20, Wellington Street North, Strand, by J[ohn] Francis. [...], →OCLC, page 663, column 3:
      Sir W. Rose has works that bear painful evidence of failing health; indeed, his group of the Duc et Duchesse d'Aumale (705), with the Prince de Condé and the Duc de Guise, is quite unfinished and even blotted. The face of the Duke is refined, but weak; the colour is pale, and the background only a dabble of unarranged and undrilled touches.
    • 1862 February, George Augustus [Henry] Sala, “The Strange Adventures of Captain Dangerous; a Narrative in Plain English, [] Chapter the Fourth. My Grandmother Dies, and I am Left Alone, without So Much as a Name.”, in George Augustus Sala, editor, Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers, volume IV, London: Office of "Temple Bar," 122 Fleet Street; Ward and Lock, 158 Fleet Street; New York, N.Y.: Willmer and Rogers, →OCLC, page 304:
      And then methought my dream changed, and two Great Giants with heading-axes came striding over the bed, [] And I woke up with my hair all in a dabble with the night-dews, with my Grandmother's voice ringing in my ears, "Remember the Thirtieth of January!"
    • 1936, D[avid] H[erbert] Lawrence, “Adolf”, in Edward D[avid] McDonald, editor, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, London: William Heinemann, →OCLC, page 9:
      Opening the scullery door, I heard a slight scuffle. Then I saw dabbles of milk all over the floor and tiny rabbit-droppings in the saucers. And there the miscreant, the tips of his ears showing behind a pair of boots. I peeped at him. He said bright-eyed and askance, twitching his nose and looking at me while not looking at me.
    • 2007, Constantine Sult, chapter 1, in The Murder of Linen, [United States]: Brown Paper Publishing, page 1:
      The lighting in the corridor just dabbles of arcs, afterthoughts, smears. The light a grime that gives him a slight headache. The same type as when it has rained, remained humid, a fetid stale of ozone over everything.
  2. An act of splashing in soft mud, water, etc.
    • 1849, Acheta Domestica [pseudonym; L. M. Budgen], “The Gnat.—A Life of Buoyancy.”, in Episodes of Insect Life, London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, King William Street, Strand, →OCLC, page 63:
      Happily, however, he [the gnat] is born a swimmer and can take his pleasure in his native element, poising himself near its surface head downwards, tail upwards. Why chooses he this strange position? Just for the same reason that we rather prefer, when taking a dabble in the waves, to have our heads above water, for the convenience, namely, of receiving a due supply of air, which the little swimmer in question sucks in through a sort of tube in his tail.
    • 1865, George Tuthill Borrett, “Cleveland to Chicago”, in Letters from Canada and the United States, London: Printed for private circulation, by J. E. Adlard, Bartholomew Close, →OCLC, page 78:
      After a dabble in a teaspoonful of water, and a scrape with a bit of an old sack, in a box, which is dignified with the title of "wash room"—for the American cars are, as it were, moveable hotels, with every accommodation complete (including what, I think, from a sanitary point of view, had very much better not be there), I took a walk up and down the train, with the rest of my fellow-passengers, and thereby improved my appetite for the breakfast which we were to take at a station down the road.
  3. An act of participation in an activity in a casual or superficial way.
    • 1795, Tate Wilkinson, Samuel Foote, The Wandering Patentee; or, A History of the Yorkshire Theatres, from 1779 to the Present Time: Interspersed with Anecdotes Respecting Most of the Performers in the Three Kingdoms, from 1765 to 1795. [...] In Four Volumes. To which are Added, Never Published, the Diversions of the Morning, and Foote’s Trial for a Libel on Peter Paragraph. Written by the late Samuel Foote, Esq., volume III, York, Yorkshire: Printed for the author, by Wilson, Spence, and Mawman; sold by G. G. & J. Robinson, Paternoster Row; T[homas] Egerton, Whitehall; and J. Deighton, Holborn, London; and by all the booksellers in the city and county of York, →OCLC, page 235:
      [] I was induced to quit Leeds ſooner than uſual, as the concourſe of company which would aſſemble on that occaſion was expected to be very numerous and productive, and of courſe I could not idly let ſlip ſuch a lucrative proſpect but muſt have a dabble for the loaves and fiſhes.
    • 1837, [Francis] Bacon, “Introductory Essay”, in The Works of Lord Bacon. With an Introductory Essay, and a Portrait. In Two Volumes, volume I, London: William Ball, Paternoster Row; stereotyped and printed by J. R. and C. Child, Bungay, →OCLC, page xli:
      From the separate little tracts and fragments which we have last noticed, (as well as the greater works, which contain a fuller development of his views on this subject,) it appears he slighted what has been termed Natural Theology. He was content with the Bible, without which Natural Theology is a dabble of inconclusive presumptions, and in connexion with which, however pleasing as a speculative inquiry, useless as a canon of faith, or a rule of life.
    • 1845, Joseph C. Neal, “The Moral of Goslyne Greene, who was Born to a Fortune”, in The Gift: A Christmas, New Year, and Birthday Present, Philadelphia, Pa.: Carey and Hart, →OCLC, page 68:
      A dabble in the stocks does not always turn out profitably; cotton is sometimes heavy on our hands, and real estate will sulkily retrograde, when, by the calculation, it ought to have advanced.

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