When I was a child in the 1960s, “calling dibs” was popular.* Calling dibs was a way for someone to informally claim ownership. I have no idea if the phrase is still in general usage, and I don’t know why I recollected these two words after so long a time. They seem quaint. I’m taking liberties with the words dibber and dibbee, but if you won’t tell, neither will I.
Calling dibs had practical applications. For example, as a Boy Scout, the patrol leaders might be sitting together on the bus on the way to the campground. With knowledge and forethought, one of them might declare, “I call dibs on campsite #3, the one by the river.” It was like planting that Spartan Patrol flag on campsite #3 from a distance. (Historically, there were countries trying to do the same thing – Portugal calls dibs on this half of the world while Spain calls dibs on the other half.)
I remember feeling that the “game” got ridiculous when I was in fifth grade. Boys (this was a boy game) would randomly called dibs on things from their seats on a school bus. “I call dibs on the red convertible.” Jealous glances. “OK, I call dibs on the black Ford pickup truck.” Furtive glances. “Where, where!” The boy would point out the pickup truck. “Ooh.” The boys let out a collective sigh.
The game made no sense to me. I tried to explain that ownership was not achieved. No one was going to hand them the keys to the car or give them a ride, “shotgun” or otherwise. “I’d take a ride,” responded one boy. “Yeah, that would be cool.” That seemed to be the level of discourse on this subject. Maybe I was just a spoiled sport, but I don’t think so. I felt the game was meaningless. I understood that it was similar to games like “I See a Color,” meant to pass the time. But “I See a Color” involved some skills of observation. Calling dibs seemed random and vain. But I was not so articulate. My protests – “That’s just dumb!” – were put away.
To the boys on that school bus, dibs did mean ownership. Didn’t I know anything? “OK,” I countered, looking for the most valuable thing I could see. “I call dibs on that building over there.” Stunned silence. “Don’t you know anything, you can’t call dibs on a building.” I thought for a moment. “Then how about this road? I call dibs on the road. That gives me control over all the cars on the road.” The other kids were baffled by the suggestion. There’s one sure-fire retort. “Duh! You can’t do that either!” Apparently, while riding on the bus, dibs only extended to automotive products – including a motorcycle if someone was lucky enough to spot one. I felt distant. I didn’t even want the items claimed by dibs. What was I going to do with a motorcycle even if they did hand over the keys? Maybe I could sell it. I kept that thought to myself, and didn’t play. The game seemed inconsequential and therefore meaningless. I was wrong. I didn’t realize this game was not unlike pups and cubs spar-playing in preparation for their adult roles. It was a little bit like playing the game of Life, acquiring items of status in the adult world and practicing at keeping the economy running through the good citizenship of consumerism.
I was also wrong about ownership. Dibs means ownership by projection, although in what direction ownership is achieved it is open for debate. Who becomes the dibbee and dibber could be a matter of philosophical discourse. Sometimes items own us.
On another level, the game has additional relevance, because it tracks how we place our attention in the world. For example, a man might (consciously or unconsciously) call dibs on a commercial advertisement depicting a sexy woman leaning against a red convertible. He places his attention firmly on the image, maybe even throws out a metaphoric fishing line in an attempt to snag it. When he eventually buys his red convertible (or the closest affordable approximation) he may consciously or unconsciously wonder what happened to the sexy lady. Wasn’t that also part of his dibs? Here’s a case of the dibber becoming the dibbee.
What we place our attention on in the world is important because it determines, in part, the world that we will stream through our perception. We are, on a fundamental level, constantly calling dibs in the world – projecting into those areas where we would like to engage our participation. And dibs is claiming us in return. Dibs is out there saying, “You want me, just sign on the dotted line.”
There is another choice.
So frequently in our culture, calling dibs involves material items or situations. But it doesn’t have to. We could resurrect that childhood game and place our attention on other things. “I call dibs on that beautiful cloud,” or “I call dibs on that stately tree,” or “I’ve got dibs on the spirit that makes trees and clouds” – knowing full well that calling dibs does not claim ownership. By connecting our attention we open ourselves to the possibility of being dibbed in return. In this perception of the world, dibs has the potential to become a mutual embrace. Can you dib it?
*Why it was called dibs (dibbies if you were enthusiastic) I have no idea, and etymologists are not in agreement. As a child, it was one of those situations where boys assumed it was common knowledge and that only the shamefully ignorant looked for an explanation.