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Q From Kenneth Payne: I have an article which claims in passing that the word snob was ‘originally a reduction of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate’. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t know this, saying the origin is obscure, but confirms my belief that a snob was originally a cobbler. Is there any authority for this Latin source?

A None: the reference to the Latin tag is either mischievous or mistaken. As you have discovered, the origin lies in a dialect word meaning a cobbler. It seems that early usage implied a person of humble rank or status, as cobblers of course were.

Only later was it attached to the idea of somebody who sought to imitate those of superior social standing, as the Oxford English Dictionary so effectively puts it: “One who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance”. The Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray pretty much invented this sense through his series of articles in Punch in the 1840s called The Snobs of England by One of Themselves, which was republished as The Book of Snobs in 1848. In this he dissected the character of various types of English snobs, such as the military snob and the country snob. Later still snob was applied to a person who despised others whom he saw as being of lower rank, a sense that is first recorded in one of George Bernard Shaw’s works in 1911.

(As an antipodean aside, the Australian slang sense of the last and most awkward sheep in the pen waiting to be shorn is a bit of double-derived wordplay, as the older term is cobbler, itself a joke on the phrase cobbler’s last for the little anvil shoemakers use.)

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Nov. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sno1.htm
Last modified: 6 November 1999.