The Grammarphobia Blog

On nobs and snobs

Q: I enjoyed your post about “snob,” but I’m wondering if the word is related to “nob,” the British term for someone who’s wealthy or socially prominent.

A: No, the two words aren’t etymological relatives. The only thing they have in common is an “-ob” ending that’s an irrelevant coincidence, as far as we can tell.

When “nob” first appeared, in the 1300s, it meant a knot, a now obsolete usage. The sense of someone important, chiefly a British usage, showed up in the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the slang VIP sense is of uncertain origin, though it may have been influenced by the archaic “nab” or colloquial “nob,” terms for the head.

The dictionary says one theory is that “nob” is a shortened form of “noble” or “nobleman,” perhaps originally a graphic representation, but that wouldn’t explain why early written forms of the word were spelled with “a” instead of “o.”

The earliest OED citation for “nob” used in the bigwig sense you’re asking about is from an Oct. 10, 1676, entry in the Inverness Tailors’ Minute Book:

“The said John Baillie … resolved … that the most discreet and sound nabbs of the freemen should join with him in council.”

The dictionary’s first example with the “o” spelling is from Letters of W. Fowler (1809): “My Drawings and Engravings … have recommended me to the notice of the first Nobbs of this Kingdom.” (William Fowler, 1761-1832, was an English artist known for his drawings and engravings.)

The first OED citation with the modern spelling is from The English Spy (1825), a satirical book by the author and journalist Charles Molloy Westmacott about fashionable life in Regency England: “Nob or big wig.”

The noun “snob,” as we wrote in our post last week, meant a shoemaker when it showed up in the late 17th century. The OED describes its origin as obscure.

The noun didn’t get its modern sense (someone who despises the less wealthy or prominent) until the early 20th century.

We haven’t seen any evidence in either the OED or other language references that “snob” and “nob” are etymologically related.

However, the linguist Anatoly Liberman has suggested on the Oxford University Press blog that the two words may be related in a looser way, like “children living in the same orphanage (identical clothes and similar habits, but the union is artificial).” We’re wary of such speculations, but you might find them interesting.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve also discussed “nob” in a 2012 post about “hobnob” and in a 2006 post about the singer known as Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs (noting the use of “nobs” and “nibs” in cribbage).

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