Q: I was reading the other day about the death of the singer Georgia Gibbs. The obituary in the New York Times reminded me that she was referred to as “Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs.” Where did the term “his nibs” or “her nibs” come from?
A: “His nibs” or “her nibs” is an informal expression used to refer to a “person in authority, especially one who is self-important,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary speculates that the word “nibs” may be an alteration of the word “nob,” chiefly British slang for a “person of wealth or social standing.” The word “nob,” which American Heritage suggests might be a variant of “knob,” is also slang for the human head.
In cribbage, a jack is known as either “His Nibs” or “His Nobs.” In fact, the first citation for “his nibs,” from 1846, in the Oxford English Dictionary may be a reference to cribbage, though the second citation, from 1877, clearly refers to a person in authority.
The OED says the origin of “his nibs” is obscure, but it might have come from the slang term “my nabs,” meaning “my gentleman” or “myself.” The word “nab,” according to the OED, refers to a head or a coxcomb (a fop or a dandy).
The word “nib,” of course, refers to a bird’s beak or the business end of a pen. But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from 1812 in which “nib” was used to mean “a gentleman or person of the higher order.”
By the way, I didn’t find any references that link “his nibs” to the word “nabob,” which comes from Arabic and Hindi, and also refers to an important person.
As for Miss Gibbs, the TV host Garry Moore dubbed the singer “Her Nibs,” probably because the phrase rhymed with her name and reflected her prominence in the world of popular musical.