New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote recently, “It is a nibble weird that a guy who describes his relationship to Christmas as ‘hostile’ runs around greater Los Angeles in a floppy red Santa hat….” We’re not here to analyze the eccentric behavior of this reluctant St. Nick (after all, he does live in Los Angeles, where the bizarre is the norm), but rather to muse on Ms. Steinhauer’s use of the phrase “a nibble.” She apparently means it in the same sense as “a bit,” that is “somewhat or rather.”
No other instances of “a nibble” in this sense are readily found among the trillions of words on the Internet, nor does such usage appear in any dictionary visible around here. One must conclude, therefore, that it is a new use, so congratulations on your coinage, Ms. Steinhauer—stand up and take a lexiconic bow!
Computerese has already appropriated the word “nibble” to mean “half a byte,” although in keeping with the variant spelling of “byte,” it is often spelled “nybble.” A “byte,” for those (like me) who did not know, is eight “bits,” and a “bit” is a unit of computer information equivalent to the result of a choice between two absolute opposites. This kind of bit is a portmanteau word, made up of the first two and last letters of the phrase “binary digit .”
But we digress. “Nibble” was first a verb, from the Low German nibbelen, meaning “to take little bits of something.” By the sixteenth century “nibble” was also a noun, meaning the act of nibbling, especially when done by a fish on a piece of bait. Nowadays a nibble can also be an expression of interest in an offer to sell something.
The phrase “a bit,” meaning “somewhat,” derives from the word “bite,” so etymologically there’s no reason why “nibble” couldn’t be used in the same way. There are other nouns that have become adverbial idioms defining a quantity, such as “a tad” (from the word for a small child) and “a lot” (from the word meaning all the members of a group), as in “I like Maserati sports cars a lot, but they are a tad expensive.”
“A lot,” by the way, is two words and looks like a head-on train wreck if written “alot,” as it is by an astonishing number of people.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not among them, however, and rather than nibbling, he suggests that you chew on this nonsense rhyme until you find some meat in it:
If I choose to eat a bit,
Then I would have a bite.
And if I choose to sit,
It can be upon a site.
And then if I should spit,
Why, it might be just for spite.
Now it’s almost time to quit—
But not quite.