The Grammarphobia Blog

Snob appeal

Q: What is the origin of the word “snob”? Is it an acronym like “posh”?

A: No, “snob” isn’t an acronym, and “posh” isn’t either.

We wrote a post about “posh” in 2011. The origin of the adjective is unknown, but it may have been influenced by the rare use of “posh” as a noun for a dandy.

As for “snob,” imaginative wordies have suggested a variety of acronyms, but haven’t offered a shred of evidence to support their theories.

The most highbrow of the theories is that “snob” originated as an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate, meaning “without nobility.”

The abbreviation was supposedly used to indicate which Oxbridge students or ship passengers should be addressed with titles. Oxford Dictionaries online describes this theory as “ingenious but highly unlikely.”

As we’ve written several times on our blog, acronyms were rare before the 1930s, according to the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower.

In The F-Word, a book whose subject is the source of several phony acronyms, Sheidlower writes that “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words—are almost always false.”

In fact, the word “snob” originally meant the kind of person today’s snob would look down on. When it showed up in English in the 18th century it meant a shoemaker, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Snob, a nick name for a shoemaker.”

A few years later, Ayto writes, Cambridge University students adopted “snob” as a slang term for a “townsman, someone not a member of the University.”

The first OED citation for “snob” used in the townie sense, dated around 1796, is from Cap and Gown, an 1889 collection of Cambridge humor by Charles Whibley: “Snobs call him Nicholson! Plebeian name.”

A few decades later, Ayto says, the meaning of “snob” widened to the “general sense ‘member of the lower orders.’ ”

The first example he cites is from a July 22, 1831, article in the Lincoln Herald about a newly elected Parliament expected to approve reform legislation in Britain: “The nobs have lost their dirty seats—the honest snobs have got ’em.”

In the mid-1800s, Ayto says, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray “sowed the seeds of the word’s modern meaning.”

In The Book of Snobs, an 1848 collection of his satirical works, Thackeray uses the term for “someone vulgarly aping his social superiors,” according to Ayto.

The OED cites this example from the book: “such persons as are Snobs everywhere … being by nature endowed with Snobbishness.”

In his etymological dictionary, Ayto writes that the term “has since broadened to include those who insist on their gentility as well as those who aspire to it.”

The OED defines the modern sense of “snob” as a “person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Doctor’s Dilemma, a 1911 play by George Bernard Shaw:

“All her childish affectations of conscientious scruple and religious impulse have been applauded and deferred to until she has become an ethical snob of the first water.”

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