One of the wonders of the English language is how a word can over time change its meaning to become the polar opposite – something I looked at a year or so ago in a series entitled All Change. Today’s word is even more remarkable because snob is what grammarians call an auto-antonym – it has two meanings which are directly contradictory of each other.
This may seem surprising because nowadays the commonly accepted definition of a snob is someone who despises those considered to be inferior in rank, attainment or taste. That’s true but other definitions to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary include “a person belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility”. So what is the story behind this word?
The starting point in our search is an edition of the Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany of 25th August 1770 in which a correspondent, signing himself as the Wood Street Cobbler, wrote, “but what is this [broken pavement] more than honest Snob has taken notice of several times?” The correspondent’s nom de plume may well have been something of an in-joke because by 1781 the word snob is documented as meaning a shoemaker or a cobbler’s apprentice. The association of snob with the profession of shoemaking appeared in a theatre review in the Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser of 8th December 1774. The reviewer informed his readers that “last night a new Comic Ballad of two act was performed at the Theatre Royale Drury Lane, called the Cobbler ..Air IV”. We are then treated to an extract, “Pray, pray, be quiet neighbour Snob,/ Don’t act now so contrary:/ make love to me – a pretty job,/ I’m quite in a quandary”.
By 1796 the meaning had shifted a little as it now referred to a towns person or anyone who was not a student at Cambridge. Legend has it that anyone who was not a member of the Varsity was called sub nobilitate or sine nobilitate and that an abbreviation taking the first letter of the prefix and the first three letters of the noun to form the abbreviation snob. We don’t need to believe this because it is quite easy to imagine that a word that started out describing an honest cobbler could easily migrate to a position where it encapsulates the entire working class, a class to which students, particularly those from Cambridge, would hardly profess to belong.
It was thanks to William Thackeray that the word snob became to have its more modern meaning. He wrote a series of essays for the magazine, Punch, about a whole range of snobs you could encounter in everyday Victorian life from military snobs to university and country and literary snobs and even snobs abroad. He published them as a collection in 1848, entitled The Book of Snobs, written by one himself. It is a sort of natural history of snobbery. Not all of the characters you find within its pages are vulgar and ostentatious. But a pretty common theme throughout all the portraits is that they are insufficiently refined and are subjected to ridicule because their manners violate what is deemed acceptable to society.
From then onwards with the imprimatur of a great novelist, snob acquired its more modern meaning without ever losing its original sense and, indeed, someone exhibiting snobbery is in an inverted way acting like an uncouth, ill-educated member of the working class. Or am I just being a snob myself?