Learn English – How to use “The screaming abdabs”

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I have recently come across the phrase "the screaming abdabs". It is used in sentences such as "it gave me the screaming abdabs", abdabs being and old-fashioned word meaning 'a case of extreme anxiety'. What I want to know is if the phrase can be used in modern writing or, if not, what period of time the phrase comes from or when it is acceptable to be used? Is it Victorian or 20th century or something else? Thanks.

Best Answer

Dictionary discussions of 'abdabs'/'habdabs'

The word habdabs (or abdabs, with a dropped h) appears to have been rather common in British English, but it seems never to have caught on in North America. Several dictionaries offer rather sketchy information on it. From Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990):

screaming (h)abdabs n pl British a state of mental agitation bordering on hysteria. Usually heard in the phrase 'It gives me (a case of) the screaming abdabs'; it makes me extremely irritated, agitated.

From John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009):

abdabs

give someone the screaming abdabs induce an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation in someone. {Abdabs (or habdabs) is mid 20th-century slang whose origin is unknown. The word is sometimes also used to mean an attack of delirium tremens.}

From John Ayto & John Simpon, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992):

habdabs noun Also abdabs. Great anxiety, the heebie-jeebies; esp. in phr. to give (someone) the screaming habdabs. 1946–. SPECTATOR Treasure Island gives pleasure and excitement to some and the screaming habdabs to others (1962). [Origin unknown.]

From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, eighth edition (1984):

abdabs. In don't come—or give methe old abdabs, don't tell me the tale: C.20, esp. WW2. By itself, abdabs was, in WW2, occ. used for 'afters' [that is, "second course"]. —2. In the screaming abdabs, an attack of delirium tremens: since the late 1930s. Since ca. 1942, abdabs has sometimes been hab-dabs. This is prob. the orig. of the abdabs 'given' in sense 1. —3. In have the screaming abdabs, to be in a state of enraged frustration: R[oyal] N[avy], M[erchant] N[avy]: since ca. 1950.

...

hab-dabs (occ. habs-dabs). Often, the screaming hab-dabs.) Var of ab-dabs, q.v., nervous irritation: mostly RAF: since ca. 1937.

If you accept Partridge's chronology, abdabs/habdabs goes back to at least 1937 and may have originated as a term for an attack of delirium tremens. Of the four books cited, three suggest that the word was not yet obsolete at the time those books were published. The exception, Ayto's book on English idioms, refers to habdabs/abdabs as "mid 20th-century slang," which I suppose could be taken to imply that it was no longer current in 2009, though Ayto's notation is somewhat ambiguous.


Recent published instances of 'abdabs'/'habdabs'

A turn through Google Books search results indicates that, prior to their work in Pink Floyd, Syd Barret and Roger Waters played in a band called Sigma 6 that "underwent a dizzying succession of name changes: from the T-Set to the Megadeaths, to the Architectural Abdabs, or Screaming Abdabs, or just plain Abdabs" [source: Nicholas Schaffner, Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1992)].

The search results also indicate that abdabs/habdabs continues to appear in writing published as recently as 2007, in John Osborne, A Ranging Son [snippet]:

Many people had already moved or were in the process of moving, but before departing had left signs and omens that gave Hlupo and Dofasi the screaming habdabs.

and 2008, in Dexter Petley, One True Void [combined snippets]:

I didn't want Maxine to make her hate herself more than she probably did. I didn't want to have to hear one of her 'outbursts,' her 'abdabs,' while Maxine was in earshot.