meaning and origin of ‘to give somebody the (screaming) (h)abdabs’

The informal British-English phrase to give somebody the (screaming) habdabs, or abdabs, means to make somebody feel extremely agitated or irritatedhabdabs, or abdabs, which means nervous anxiety or irritation, is merely a fanciful word.

This phrase originated in Royal Air Force slang during the Second World War—at least according to the earliest instance that I have found, from a letter to the Editor published in The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser (Trowbridge, Wiltshire) of Saturday 5th September 1942:


Sir: I read with interest your article on “R.A.F. Slanguage,” but I think someone has been giving you some pretty ropey duff gen.
On our ’drome, at least, it would have been more like this:—
“Three pretty ropey sprog peloos stooging on circuits and bumps pranged a vintage kite; one had it, and the other two went for a burton.”
Going for a burton means having an accident of practically any type, and is not confined to crashing aircraft.
Some other slang in use is:—“Pucka griff,” is the same as “pucka gen,” a “kipper kite” is a Coastal Command kite.” When the weather is bad the “ceiling is down on the deck”; a kite “lobs in” not lands; the cockpit is often “the greenhouse.”
Sometimes, when a fellow is shooting a line1 he’s told to “belt up2 as he gives you the habdabs.” What the habdabs mean is not quite clear.
That, I’m afraid, is all this poor “erk” can think of at the moment, so I’ll sign off.
Yours sincerely,
L/A/C.3 R. K. MEADE.
Home address,
46, The Croft,
Our article was supplied by the Air Ministry.— Editor.

1 to shoot a line: to talk pretentiously, to boast
2 to belt up: to be quiet
3 LAC: Leading Aircraftman

R. K. Meade was referring to the following article, published in The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser of Saturday 22nd August 1942:


Three ropey types, all sprogs, pranged a cheeseye kite on bumps and circuits. One bought it; the other two went for a Burton. The Stationmaster took a dim view and tore them off a strip. They’d taken a shagboat Wofficer, who was browned off, along and the Queen Bee was hopping mad.
This may sound like double Dutch or a section from a New York cabdriver’s vocabulary, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the King’s English, 1942 version, as spoken—sometimes—by the Royal Air Force.
A translation for those who don’t understand such modern English would read:—
Three unpopular individuals, all brand new pilot officers, crashed a worn-out aircraft while making practice circuits and landings. One was killed; the other two were severely reprimanded. The station commander disapproved and roundly rated them. They had taken along a somewhat plain W.A.A.F. officer, who was bored, and the W.A.A.F. Commandant was very angry.
Like all Services in all countries, the R.A.F. has developed a language all its own. Many of the terms have been adopted now into common usage, such as “browned off” for bored, and “put up a black” for doing something wrong. Some expressions have been borrowed from the United States, including “Flinging a woo,” which means to have a date with a girl, and “roughneck,” which, in the R.A.F., does not mean a tough guy but an unlikeable person.
Coastal Command have a language which is semi-nautical. They have “Rover patrols,” and go on “strike” and “sweeps”; have a “strike-boat” (flying-boat) ready. They come down “in the drink” when they force-land in the water; “hit the deck” when they crash-land on sea or water.
“Gen” means the real, inside information on anything, and, similarly, “duff gen” means wrong information on anything. A “flap” is a sudden operation. To be in a flap or in a flat spin means to be busy on a job, too busy to do anything else.
The “Chief Plumber” is, of course, the Chief Engineer; the “Quack” is the doctor; the “Second Dickey” is the second pilot, and a stickeyback is a R.A.F. photographer. There are three degrees of boredom:—brassed off, browned off and cheesed off. The cheesed is the strongest.
Pilots who go “dicing” or on a “shaky-do” are attacking a difficult and dangerous target; if it’s an easy target it’s a “piece of cake.” After they drop their bombs they sometimes “stooge around to take a beaker,” meaning to hang around to have a look.
If a pilot is chased by the enemy he goes “like the clappers,” or full out. A new pilot is “doying” or coming in to land for the first time; when he succeeds he may say “I’ve got it wrapped”; in other words he has it “all buttoned up,” or well understood.
To “carry the can” is to “hold the baby” or to be the “scapegoat type,” while pilots suffering from that morning-after feeling are “newted.”
“Gedawng” is a word that covers all explosive noises, from cannon-fire and bomb explosions to crashing aircraft or the scream of open throttles.
“He hit the deck and . . . gedawng”; “the Messerschmitt came up behind and . . . gedawng.”

Another early occurrence of to give somebody the (screaming) habdabs, or abdabs, is from Just Jake, a comic strip by Bernard Graddon (1905-51), published in the Daily Mirror (London) of Friday 4th July 1947:

'screaming abdabs' - Daily Mirror (London) - 4 July 1947

Alf Resco & Co
Houses did up good.

– This is me shop — Got me name over the top — I’ll get me barrer if yer’ll stop —
– Sech po-itry — Don’t it do sumpfin’ to yer, Capting?
Gives me the screamin’ ab-dabs — I only hope his tilin’ isn’t as corny as his converation!

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