“Goddamn grabby”?

MMgrabby

“I just don’t think it will be grabby enough for [X magazine],” a journalist explained candidly in his response to one of my pitches yesterday. I had never heard, until then, the adjective “grabby” with that meaning — of arousing interest or attention. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard or read the word grabby in any context. I knew exactly what he meant when he consigned my pitch to the ungrabby bin, and it’s certainly not the first time one of my suggestions has been deemed ungrabby — even if they’ve never been labeled as such. But it did make me wonder about the history and pervasiveness of this curious colloquialism, which is quite grabby in its own right …

Oxford Dictionaries gives the following two definitions for the informal, chiefly North American adjective: “1. Having or showing a selfish desire for something; greedy. 1.1 Attracting attention; arousing people’s interest: a grabby angle on a news story.” And Merriam Webster offers roughly the same two meanings: “1. tending to grab:  grasping, greedy: grabby hands2: having the power to grab the attention: grabby ads.”

It’s interesting that the second and younger meaning of grabby in both dictionaries seems to refer quite specifically to material in the media or the public eye designed to grab our attention; a couple of recent examples in Huffington Post (by Marlow Stern and Blake Gopnik) make mention of “grabby headlines”. The original grabby definition — of showing a tendency towards greediness — dates back to 1905-10, according to Random House, Etymonline and other reliable sources; however, there are very few clues as to when the second, eye-catching meaning first emerged. The Dictionary of American Slang dates the sense of “seizing; arresting; riveting” — offering the example spent hours working on a goddamn grabby lead — to “the 1960s+”, so journos, flacks and ad men must have appropriated the grabby adjective during the Mad Men era. 

We should be careful not to confuse grabby with grabble (meaning to grope or feel eagerly with the hands). Samuel Johnson quoted Arbuthnot’s History of John Bull for his dictionary definition of that now archaic verb, which Johnson reckoned was probably corrupted from grapple:

My blood chills about my heart at the thought of these rogues, with their bloody hands grabbling in my guts, and pulling out my very entrails.

Those rogues sound pretty grabby to me.

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