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His nibs

Q From K Mackay: I would appreciate your knowledge of the origin of the expression his nibs, which was always applied to my beloved, albeit autocratic, father.

A This is — as I am sure you know — a mildly derisive mock title used to refer to a self-important man, especially one in authority. It’s modelled after the pattern of references to the British aristocracy, such as his lordship. It is still around, though sounding a little old-fashioned and is still capable of giving mild offence:

“It was one of my ministers, actually,” said Dr Simms, “but he didn’t realize it was I who answered the phone. ‘Is his nibs in?’ asked the junior clergyman rather gruffly. ‘I’m afraid,’ I said, ‘this is his nibs speaking.’ The poor man, of course, was very embarrassed, but I couldn’t help having a little laugh to myself.”

The Songman, by Tommy Sands, 2005.

It’s recorded first in print about 1820, but is presumably older. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it in a glossary simply as “the person referred to” and John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary of 1860 adds “The term has no reference to any functionary, as the words mean simply ‘him,’ and may be applied to any one.” It is clear that the specific deprecatory sense came along later in its life.

The written evidence shows that nibs was a variant on nabs, because his nabs is recorded some decades earlier, from the 1790s, and has survived alongside it in some dialects. It has gone through the same shift of sense.

But its history is still more complicated, because the vowel has been highly fluid, and the record includes the singular nab, an old term for the head, nib, a seventeenth-century university slang term for a freshman at Cambridge, and nob or knob, other terms for the head. There’s also neb, an Old English word for a beak, nose or mouth (nib for the business end of a pen comes from the same root).

Perhaps the association with supposed social superiors may have something to do with people so elevated in self-importance that they “have their noses in the air”? Or simply that people use the head as a metaphor for the whole person? (The OED suggests this is the source of the cribbage expression one for his nob, referring to a jack of the same suit as the card turned up by the dealer.) Some have suggested that nob, in the sense of a person of some wealth or social distinction, which dates from the seventeenth century, may have been an abbreviation of noble or nobleman, though this doesn’t explain some of the other forms.

It’s unlikely that we shall ever fully unravel the skein of linguistic links involved in the development of his nibs but the outlines are clear enough.

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Page created 15 Aug 1998; Last updated 30 Mar 2013