A nosey parker is someone who cannot resist the opportunity to stick their nose into other people’s business, someone who is overly inquisitive or likes to pry. But where does it come from and was there a historical nosey parker?
In etymological terms it is a fairly modern phrase, first appearing in a story published in the Belgravia: A London Magazine in May 1890 entitled Eastward Ho! by E Hesse-Kaye. The narrator, who hails from the West End of London makes an intrepid expedition into the Badlands of the east, notably Shoreditch and Hoxton. Part of the article is devoted to recording the scraps of conversation he overhears. In one of the exchanges he hears, “lookey ‘ere, Mr Poll Pry, you’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr Nosey Parker about you”.
That it was well established in the vernacular of London folk seems to be confirmed by one of those court cases that make local newspapers a treasure trove of social insights. In its edition of October 21, 1896 the Daily News reported a case which had troubled the beak at Southwark police court involving a certain Elizabeth Waddell, described as “a determined-looking woman” who was accused of smashing up a barrow load of toys. In her defence, Waddell is reported as saying, “if the complainant had not been such a Nosey Parker, she would have escaped the row”.
Not unsurprisingly, when we look at the development of the meaning of nosey, we find that it was used at least from the seventeenth century to describe someone with a large nose. Thomas Shelton undertook the enormous task of translating Cervantes’ Don Quixote into English, a feat he achieved in 1620. In one passage, he wrote “the story leaves them, to tell who was the Knight of the Glasses and his nosier Squire”. Although not clear in excerpt form, the context shows that the adjective was used to describe a physical attribute of the squire, not where he stuck it.
It was not until the early nineteenth century that the word began to be used in a more figurative sense, to suggest that the nose was used to pry into matters not necessarily concerning the bearer of the snout. This transition in meaning can be seen in Robert Montgomery’s satire of 1828, The Age Reviewed, in which he writes, “the sycophantic gang Whine through the kingdom with deceitful slang; Till nasty, nosy gabble mouth’d for hire, Puff their mean souls into Presumption’s fire”.
The other component of the phrase had a rather literal meaning, a parker was someone who looked after a park. One of the temptations or occupational hazards of the job may have been inadvertently, or deliberately, observing a person or persons unknown getting up to no good. But this perk of the job is not necessarily the origin of our phrase but it does attract me.
It almost certainly not a reference to the sixteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. We have illustrations of him and whilst he has a fine snout, it is not particularly prominent and, in any event, he was not known for being particularly inquisitive. The gap of four centuries, even allowing for it to be in oral use before it made its way into print, tends to argue against him as the phrase’s origin. There was a postcard from 1907 entitled The Adventure of Nosey Parker but this appeared after the first recorded use of the phrase.
As is often the way, there is no definitive answer to our conundrum but I do like the image of an inquisitive park attendant.