The Grammarphobia Blog

To hob or hob nob

Q: What is the origin of the word “hobnob” and was it ever spelled “hobknob”? By the way, my maiden name is “O’Connor.”

A: It’s nice to hear from another O’Connor. Actually, Pat’s last name (“O’Conner”) was misspelled somewhere along the way and should be “O’Connor” too.

Etymologically, the verb “hobnob” is believed to have its origins in early versions of “to have or have not,” which seems a far cry from what it now means (to hang out with). How did this develop?

The story begins in the 16th century, with “hab nab” and “hab or nab.”

Etymologists have suggested these phrases represent some archaic forms of the verb “have,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

These are presumably a subjunctive form of the Old English hæbbe and Middle English habbe, along with their corresponding negatives, næbbe and nabbe.

In the 1500s the figurative meaning of “hab nab” and “hab or nab,” the OED says, was “get or lose, hit or miss, succeed or fail; however it may turn out, anyhow; at a venture, at random.”

The dictionary has examples of “hab nab” being used this way into the 19th century.

In the OED’s earliest written example, recorded in 1530, the phrase appeared as “by habbe or by nabbe.”

In 1542, it appeared in a translation from the Apothegms of Erasmus: “habbe or nhabbe to wynne all, or to lese all.”

Published references in the OED indicate that an “o” spelling of the phrase first showed up in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (circa 1601-2): “Hob, nob, is his word: giu’t or take’t.”

The OED says the phrase with the “o” spelling had all the same meanings of “hab nab,” plus “have or have not.”

By the 1700s, various “hobnob” usages had become drinking phrases. As the OED says, these phrases (probably in the sense of “give and take”) were “used by two persons drinking to each other.”

The phrases “to drink hob or nob” and “to drink hob a nob,” according to the dictionary, meant “to drink to each other alternately, to take wine with each other with clinking of glasses.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for a drinking sense, from Samuel Foote’s The Englishman Return’d From Paris: A Farce (1756): “Then … they proceed to demolish the Substantials, with, perhaps, an occasional Interruption, of, Here’s to you, friends, Hob or Nob, Your Love and mine.”

Oliver Goldsmith used the expression this way in his novel The Citizen of the World (1762): “Hob nob, Doctor, which do you chuse, white or red?”

In 1761, “hobnob” was used as a noun for a sentiment or phrase (like a “toast”) used in drinking. And in 1763, the OED says, it was first recorded as a verb, meaning “to drink to each other, drink together.”

In its earliest appearances as a verb meaning to drink, “hobnob” was two separate words (“to hob or nob” or “to hob and nob”). And the verbal phrase persisted in that form through much of the 19th century.

But in the 1820s, people also began using a combined form, “hob-nob” or “hobnob.” And that’s also when “hobnob” acquired the meaning it has today—to associate familiarly, to be on familiar terms, and so on.

As for “hobknob,” the spelling you asked about, we can’t find any authoritative example of it, though not surprisingly it’s alive and well on Google (along with “hob-knob” and “hob knob”).

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