Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Of Snubs and Snobs
When the Academy Awards were given out last month, entertainment news was full of commentary about which movies, directors and performers should have been nominated but weren't—who got snubbed by those snobs in the Academy. That made me wonder if snub and snob were etymologically related.
They sound so similar, and they both carry meanings of rudeness and disrespect. The meaning difference conveyed by that one changed vowel suggests some long-dead rule of English word-formation, like the one behind the troublesome pair lay and lie. It's no coincidence that lay and lie sound so similar: the Old English verb that comes to us as lay was derived from the Old English verb lie. To lay something is to cause it to lie.
Drench and drink are related in the same way, as are set and sit. There are also pairs containing different parts of speech, like the adjective/noun pairs foul/filth and long/length. So it's not too hard to imagine that there used to be some rule that relating a verb like snub with a noun like snob: A snob is someone who snubs.
However, a quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary shows that no such connection exists. For one thing, the verb snub came from the Old Norse snubba in the 1300s, whereas snob didn't show up until the late 1700s, and its origin is unknown.
Also, the meanings of snub and snob weren't quite so similar a few hundred years ago. Snub meant to cut someone short, by sharply reprimanding them, or putting a quick halt to what they were doing. Later on, it got the more general meaning it has today, of any kind of public rude treatment, without the element of sharpness. The original meaning of snob, by contrast, was an informal word for a shoemaker!
Whereas snub got to its present-day meaning by semantic broadening, snob had a few more turns in its path. On his World Wide Words site, Michael Quinion gives a concise summary of its development, starting with a debunking of one dubious origin story: that it arose from an abbreviation of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate "without nobility." Quinion writes:
[T]he reference to the Latin tag is either mischievous or mistaken. … [T]he 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.
Although Thackeray spurred on the modern usage of snob as a social climber, we can antedate his mid-1840s Book of Snobs, in the writings of Canadian author Thomas Chandler Halliburton. He published three popular collections of humorous stories (each titled The Clockmaker) about a character named Sam Slick from Slicksville. Series 3, published in 1840, contains a story called "Snubbing a Snob," in which Slick takes pleasure in humiliating a dandy on a train. He tells us at the end of the story, "I must say I do like, when I get a chance, to 'Snub a Snob.'"
Not only does this story push back the earliest attestation of snob with its present meaning; it's also the earliest example I've found of snub and snob being used together to make a play on words. Even so, Halliburton doesn't seem to assume any common meaning to go with the similar phonetics. In this story, the snob is not the snubber; he's the one who gets snubbed.
Even though snub and snob are not related etymologically, their converging meaning coupled with that phonetic similarity is irresistible, especially when put in the context of other words that begin with sn-. These words often have something to do with noses, unpleasantness, or both: snout, snide, sneer, snooty, snit, snoop, snore, sniff, to name a few. It's not like sn- is some kind of prefix, like mis- or un-. It's just a fragment of a word that for some other reason, is associated with a particular meaning more often than you'd expect by chance. (Check out Ben Zimmer's discussion of snark on Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast for more on sn- words.)
This kind of unexplained sound-meaning matchup is known as a phonestheme; another commonly observed phonestheme is the sequence gl-, which often appears in words that have something to do with shininess: glint, gleam, glitter, glisten. In fact, snub does have a nose-related meaning. The meaning of "cut short" is sometimes literal: a snub nose is one that is short and flat at the tip, as if cut off; a snub-nosed revolver is one with a shortened muzzle; and a snub cube is a solid created by cutting off the edges and corners of a cube or octahedron.
The trouble with phonesthemes, though, is they're so conducive to confirmation bias. When you're busy looking for words like sniveling and snorkel, you tend to overlook words that don't fit in, such as snug, snap, and snow.
You also start to force other words to fit in. For example, snail has nothing to do with noses, and doesn't have particularly unpleasant connotations. (Some people even eat them!) But when I hear it in company of snot and sneeze, I think of the nasty trails of mucus snails leave behind, and my revulsion in finding one crawling on my lettuce one day. The more-or-less positively associated snack is included in this list of words with the sn- phonestheme, with the straw-grasping negative note "not a full, quality meal."
Snob had the "unpleasantness" part of its meaning already in place, but gained a rhinological association after it acquired its modern meaning. John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1883, even asserts that snob is a variant of snot in "provincial English," and hence the meaning of a vulgar person. An 1897 poem by J. L. C. Booth contains this verse:
The first who heard of the snob was Jack:—
"Here's a swell come down from the 'Hay-Fork' Pack—
A sneering, swaggering, dandy chap,
Who turns up his nose at a gate or gap!"
More recently, a website for crossword makers suggests "Like a snob's nose" as a clue to use for words such as haughty and upturned.
What comes to mind when you hear snub and snob? Do they put you in mind of an unpleasant type with an upturned nose, or perhaps someone looking down his nose at you? Let us know in the comments below!