Friday, August 11, 2006



My friend Jim K. sent me a couple of paragraphs from Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), p. 75:
The word "snobbery" came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility), or "s.nob," next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers.

In the word's earliest days, a snob was taken to mean someone without high status, but it quickly assumed its modern and almost diametrically opposed meaning: someone offended by a lack of high status in others, a person who believes in a flawless equation between social rank and human worth. In his Book of Snobs (1848), a pioneering essay on the subject, William Thackeray observed that over the previous twenty-five years, snobs had "spread over England like the railroads. They are now known and recognized throughout an Empire on which the sun never sets".
The derivation from "sine nobilitate" smells like a folk etymology to me. Ernest Weekley, The Romance of Words (1911), chapter XIII (Etymological Fact and Fiction) gives a good rule of thumb:
An etymology that has anything to do with a person or an anecdote is to be regarded with suspicion. For both we want contemporary evidence, and, in the case of an anecdote, we never, to the best of my knowledge, get it.
Here, contemporary evidence would be the survival of an examination list from the 1820s with the notation "s.nob." next to the names of ordinary students. The word snob occurs before 1820. See the Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. snob:
1781, "a shoemaker, a shoemaker's apprentice," of unknown origin. It came to be used in Cambridge University slang c.1796 for "townsman, local merchant," and by 1831 it was being used for "person of the ordinary or lower classes." Meaning "person who vulgarly apes his social superiors" arose 1843, popularized 1848 by William Thackeray's "Book of Snobs." The meaning later broadened to include those who insist on their gentility, in addition to those who merely aspire to it, and by 1911 had its main modern sense of "one who despises those considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste."
But De Botton is correct in his observation that the word snob, viewed historically, is an auto-antonym, a word with opposite meanings. At one point snob meant a "person of the ordinary or lower classes," but now it means "one who despises those considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste," with the implication that the snob is or considers himself to be a member of the privileged class.

Books about snobs that I haven't read but would like to are:Jasper Griffin is a well-known classical scholar.

Here are some earlier posts on auto-antonyms:

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