Slob and snob

At Yahoo! Respuestas en Español I recently found this exchange (in which I’ve made some corrections):

— ¿Qué quiere decir “slob”?
— No te quiero frustrar la tarde o la noche…. pero creo que lo que en realidad quieres preguntar es “snob” y no “slob”… Es un término que recientemente fue aceptado por [la] Real Academia Española y puede escribirse también como esnob. Es una persona que imita con afectación las maneras, opiniones, etc., de aquellos a quienes considera distinguidos o de clase social alta; para lograr aparentar ser igual que ellos. Su plural es esnobs. El término es una adaptación gráfica del acrónimo inglés snob, y éste de la abreviación latina Sine nob., es decir, Sine nobilitate, «sin nobleza».

Spanish has indeed taken to using the English word snob, which is often spelled esnob to reflect the actual Spanish pronunciation. Unfortunately the proposed etymology as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase s[in] nob[ilitate] ‘without nobility’ is itself without any nobility, which is fancy way for me to say that there’s no truth to it, which is a polite way of saying that it’s a lie. Such made-up explanations for the origins of words or phrases are often called folk etymology, which may sound folksy but still means that the would-be explanation is false.

The earliest known occurrence in print of snob was 1781, when it meant ‘shoemaker, cobbler.’ By the 1796, students at Cambridge had begun using the word as slang to refer to ‘a townie,’ ‘someone not connected to the university.’ (Note that the earlier usage in the sense of ‘shoemaker,’ before the word became university slang, kills the folk etymology of sin nobilitate.) In the 1830s, according to John Ayto in Word Origins, the sense was ‘member of the lower orders’ and then ‘ostentatiously vulgar person.’ In 1848, the novelist William Thackeray published Book of Snobs, where he used the term to mean ‘someone vulgarly aping his social superiors.’ Finally came the modern sense of snobs as ‘people who think they’re better than others, usually because of their social class.’ Interestingly, the definition of esnob in the DRAE is still Thackeray’s of ‘Persona que imita con afectación las maneras, opiniones, etc., de aquellos a quienes considera distinguidos.’

As for slob, which as far as I can tell Spanish hasn’t borrowed, the American Heritage Dictionary gives this etymology: “Irish Gaelic slab, mud, from Old Irish, probably of Scandinavian origin; akin to Swedish dialectal slabb, mud.”

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 07:39:11

    What do you mean ‘slob’? I gave the exchange above to G Translate. It only did the first two sentences or so on my iPad.

    I hope I am neither. 🙂


  2. shoreacres
    Sep 17, 2013 @ 07:48:11

    How interesting that our use of “snob” today is so different from the original meaning.

    What tickles me most is knowing about “slob”. When I was growing up, one of the greatest insults possible was applying that word to someone. “Don’t be a slob!”, my mother would say. “Do you want to grow up to be a slob?” said my dad.

    Dad’s parents came from Sweden around 1900. Mom’s lineage was Irish, going back to County Down. I suspect both of them heard the same exhortations when they were growing up, from parents who still had some old country mud on their feet.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 17, 2013 @ 09:44:42

      Till I researched this I also had no idea how much the meaning of snob changed from its original sense. What a coincidence that you have both lineages that are relevant to slob.


  3. kathryningrid
    Sep 23, 2013 @ 12:32:28

    Either way the usages of ‘snob’ seem to evoke pretense and/or pretension. What are the Latin and Spanish words for baloney, I wonder?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 23, 2013 @ 13:19:14

      You make a good point about the common thread of pretense in the derived senses of the word. As for baloney, which I assume you mean to have its slang sense, Spanish speakers could use the word tonterías, the abstract noun made from tonto ‘foolish’—and now you see the implied insult that the creators of the Lone Ranger sent his sidekick’s way. Latin words for foolishness include stultitia, fatuitas, and ineptia.


      • kathryningrid
        Sep 23, 2013 @ 17:05:09

        Hmmm. Never thought of Tonto that way (I was a little too young to pick up such nuances during the Ranger’s reign, anyway), but my immediate thought when you say the Spanish word is ‘taunt’, unrelated as it might be etymologically. Curiouser and curiouser. Or, when *I’m* trying to unravel it all in my stultifyingly fatuous and inept way, just plain cursedly complicated. 😉


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Sep 23, 2013 @ 17:14:08

          Age aside, you would’ve had to be bilingual to understand the name Tonto. And you’re correct that taunt is unrelated; in fact, although people have made conjectures about the origin of taunt, no one has pinned it down conclusively.


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