The Grammarphobia Blog

Who was the first nosy parker?

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “nosy parker.” Could it be referring to a nosy (or is it a “nosey”?) hotel valet who looks through your glove compartment, etc., after parking your car?

 A: Well, an overly curious parking attendant could be referred to as a “nosy parker,” but the phrase has been around a lot longer than valet parking.

As it turns out, nobody knows how “nosy parker” originated, though there are several dubious theories.

The most often-heard suggestion is that the term is a reference to Matthew Parker, a 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was known for poking his nose into the qualifications and activities of his clergy.

The big problem here is that Parker had been dead for several centuries before the term “nosy parker” appeared in print for the first time.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the May 1890 issue of Belgravia Magazine: “You’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you.”

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the phrase may be a reference to peeping Toms or nose-twitching rabbits at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. But Partridge offers no evidence to support either idea.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has yet another theory—that “nosy parker” evolved from “nose poker” (someone who pokes his nose in other people’s business). But Oxford has no evidence of the term “nose poker.”

The OED, which doesn’t mention any of these theories, says in an etymology note that the phrase is a combination of the adjective “nosy” and the surname “Parker.”

The dictionary adds that a 1907 postcard with the caption “The adventures of Nosey Parker” is apparently using the phrase “with reference to a (probably fictitious) individual taken as the type of someone inquisitive or prying.”

As more and more archives are digitized, we may eventually find out who this “(probably fictitious) individual” was.

How, you ask, is this inquisitive adjective spelled? Most of the dictionaries we’ve checked list “nosy” as the primary spelling, with “nosey” as a variant. The “e”-less version is far more common (twice as many hits on Google).

By the way, the earliest citation for “valet parking” in the OED dates from 1960, though some companies that offer valet parking say the use of attendants to park cars at hotels and restaurants originated in the 1930s.

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