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Alan Elsner

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You Callin' Me a Snob? The History of a Word

Posted: 02/29/2012 10:40 am

The word "snob" has been much in the news lately -- which prompted me to wonder about its origins and history.

Apparently, according to the Oxford University Press, the word was first recorded in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice.

By the end of the century, it had been adopted by Cambridge University students, who used it to refer to townspeople or local merchants who were not enrolled in the university and then more widely for people "of the ordinary or lower classes" -- more or less the opposite of today's meaning.

According to one Aodh de Blacam, who penned a Short History of Snobbery, in 1940, it was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (best known for the 2004 movie Vanity Fair starring Reese Witherspoon) who gave the word its modern meaning in his "Book of Snobs" (1848).

"An immense percentage of Snobs, I believe, is to be found in every rank of this mortal life. You must not judge hastily or vulgarly of Snobs: to do so shows that you are yourself a Snob. I myself have been taken for one," Thackeray writes in his introduction.

He goes on to elucidate the many different varieties of snobs -- the royal snob, the town snob, the country snob, the military snob, the clerical snob and others. The word soon passed in French (le snobisme) and German (der Snob).

Today we have the wine snob, the beer snob, the cheese snob, the opera snob, the film snob and countless other varieties. One definition of the food snob that amused me is "a person who looks down on those who do not know the difference between a daube and a navarin."

For those few readers who do not know, the former is made with slow-cooked beef, the latter with slow-cooked lamb.

According to the BBC, "Garden snobbery has been with us since the medieval queens imported exotic herbs in the 14th century. Gardens have always been places for a show of wealth and power and, of course, demonstrations of one's good taste and superior class." That seems a particularly British form of snobbery.

Here in the United States, I guess we have "lawn snobs" (people who look down on their neighbors whose grass is less green and lush and weedless than their own) and its opposite, "eco-lawn snobs" (those who look down on neighbors who waste precious dollars by pouring gallons of poisonous substances on their grass in order to create a fake and toxic perfection).

The website Drunkard.com provides a definition of the difference between the wine snob and the beer snob:

Wine snobs have a strict dress code involving turtlenecks, glasses designed to sit on the end of one's nose and silk scarves, but a beer snob can pretty much dress anyway he likes. Aside from the snooty expression, a typical beer snob is nearly indistinguishable from your least favorite brother-in-law.

Incidentally, my limited research was unable to come up with the first usages of the terms "inverted snobbery" or "reverse snobbery."

One nice recent example of what might be termed cultural snobbery is the diatribe unleashed by British historian Simon Schama against the popularity in the United States of Downton Abbey. It might be regarded (by others, not by me) as one snob attacking the snobbery of others.

"Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery," the Columbia University professor wrote in a piece headlined "No Downers in 'Downton'." "It's a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present, seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps. Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia."

Speaking of which, I greatly enjoyed a review I found on the website of Cornell University Press of a book entitled Am I a Snob? by Sean Latham:

Latham regards the snobbery that emerged from and still clings to modernism not as an unfortunate by-product of aesthetic innovation, but as an ongoing problem of cultural production. Drawing on the tools and insights of literary sociology and cultural studies, he traces the nineteenth-century origins of the 'snob,' then explores the ways in which modernist authors developed their own snobbery as a means of coming to critical consciousness regarding the connections among social, economic, and cultural capital. The result, Latham asserts, is a modernism directly engaged with the cultural marketplace yet deeply conflicted about the terms of its success.

With no further comment from me (which might be interpreted as snobbery), we'll let that be the last word.

 

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