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On the Origins of ‘Snob’

Several readers have called me to task for my etymology of the word snob. It is purely speculative and I no doubt should have added a bit more to that point.

Barbara Kelly wrote in the Alpha Agora:

I had always understood that “snob” came from “sine nobilitate”, that is “without nobility”. The story I recall is that births were recorded with these abbreviations: “nob” for nobility and “s.nob” for non-nobles. A “snob” then was someone who had pretensions of nobility. I did not see this mentioned as a possibility.

Loek Hopstaken wrote to me directly:

Somehow I always thought that ‘snob’ was an abbreviation of ‘sine nobilitate’, or ‘without a noble title’. An ancient European habit: entered in a guest book when the person in question was no Lord, Duke, King or Count. Snob then would indicate a person who isn’t a registered nobleman but desperately wants to be one. [Someone who] belongs to this social class, has studied their behaviour yet doesn’t really know how to make it natural and comes across as a fake.

In fact, what we do know about this word is that it did arise in the 18th century and originally referred to shoemakers. No one has any idea why. Later, in Cambridge, it came to refer to shopkeepers in general and was a was used as a put-down used by students there in referring to the townspeople.

What happened after that is anybody’s guess; however, I find it hard to believe that it was not influenced by some word referring to the nose, given all the semantics relating noses and snootery in English: to stick one’s nose in the air, snotty, and the like. For that reason I played with these ostensible parallels.

Both readers are correct, of course, in implying that I should have made my speculation clearer and I will clear that up later today. Also, I am collecting false etymologies like the one Loek and Barbara came across. So far I have only the examples for posh (Port Out Starboard Homeward), golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden), gaudy is an eponym of Antoni Gaudi, and this one. If you can think of any others, please let me know. I would like to have at least ten before posting them.

7 Responses to “On the Origins of ‘Snob’”

  1. Peter Harvey Says:

    good as you — gay
    handicap — cap in hand

    Others that seen to have come about by assimilation:
    greyhound — not colour
    court-card — originally caot card but ibnfluenced by the pictures
    butonhole — originally buttonhold
    bridegroom — not groom as horses

  2. Peter Harvey Says:

    That should be ‘coat card’. The spill-chucker wasn’t working!

  3. Judy Herman Says:

    There’s a good list of false etymologies at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_false_etymologies. I haven’t examined the sources cited, but I have been impressed with the research done by snopes.com in the past. I am suspicious of the “true” etymology the Wikipedia article gives for “420,” however.

  4. Judy Herman Says:

    Well, maybe the 420 story is true. Here’s the San Francisco Chronicle story: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2000/04/20/MN101165.DTL

  5. bnjtokyo Says:

    I’m not sure that this example is quite what you are looking for, but there is “pea” a false singular from M.E. “pease.” From “pea” we then formed a new plural “peas”

  6. bnjtokyo Says:

    I’m not sure that this example is quite what you are looking for, but there is “pea” a false singular from M.E. “pease.” From “pea” we then formed a new plural “peas”

    How about “catgut” which comes from “kitgut” from “kit,” an obsolete term for a “fiddle” + “gut” which is made from sheep intestines

    “greyhound” not from the color of some examples but “grig” OE for “bitch” + “hund,” “dog”

    “Jerusalem artichoke” Nothing to do with the city in Israel but from “girasole,” It “sunflower”

  7. Mike Says:

    How do you get ‘Jerusalem artichoke’ from ‘girasole’ which means ‘turn with the sun’?

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