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Before we got married, my husband taught me cribbage as his way of showing me how important our relationship was to him. One of the points in cribbage is for having "the right jack," or the jack whose suit matches the flip card.

There are two (that I know of) alternate names for this card. One is "his Knobs" (or maybe "his Nobs"?). The other is "his Heels," which is only used if the flip card is the right jack.

The points scored are declared as "one for his Knobs" or "two for his Heels," so we figured that Knobs must refer to a body part. My thought had been head, because head and heels are often related this way, but the plural confuses me. My husband thinks "knobs" must be British slang for knavish naughty bits.

I can't seem to find a suitable answer. Why is the right jack called his Knobs?

Edit: It seems that "his Nobs" and "his Nibs" are also variations of the name, with (I believe) "his Nobs" being the most common. Also, sometimes "his Nibs" is used instead of "his Heels."

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'The plural confuses me' ....and me too, because I have always used singular 'one for his (k)nob'! 'Knob' definitely is Br slang for naughty bits but even knaves only have one of them... –  Mynamite Oct 14 '13 at 23:30
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3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Nob: There is some dictionary support for the term "nob" as British slang that means either "head" or a "wealthy and important person". EtymOnline gives only one history of the term, and says it means:

"head," c.1700, variant of knob (q.v.).

Wiktionary suggests some other etymologies, both of which highlight that the term refers to someone of high rank:

  • From "nobleman" or "member of the nobility" (Doubtful)
  • From "white-nob" (Eighteenth century) or "white-head", referring to the powdered wigs used by those affecting upper middle-class status.

Wiktionary also lists possible definitions of "nob" that include (besides a slang term for genitalia):

  1. (slang) the head (somewhat archaic): Used in one version of the Nursery Rhyme: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water; Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. Up Jack got and home did trot, as fast as he could caper; to old Dame Dob to mend his nob, with vinegar and brown paper.

Since there is no one definition, it is possible that the meanings are related. For example, "head" is a literal place that is "higher up", and someone who is important is figuratively "higher up". Despite the multiple definitions, one cribbage site gave some history, mentioning that "nob" is the "term for noble or superior person".

Depending on the definition used, the term is either from around the late 16th to early 17th century. Since cribbage was invented around this time, "nob" could refer to either one of these meanings.

Whichever meaning it refers to, either the figurative or literal definition of "nob" meaning head or important, the rules of cribbage build upon the notion of importance:

The nob Jack (or "right Jack" as it's also known), is essential for scoring a perfect 29 hand, and also affects discard strategy - you should try to avoid throwing a Jack to your opponent's crib if possible.

So the "nob Jack" is a strategically important card, and its name possibly derives from this.


Nib: @Kit mentioned that some people refer to "his nibs" or "nib" instead of "nob". This is another somewhat accepted term that has similar origins. There is, however, some debate about which is correct:

Throughout Cribbage history, the term “nibs” and “nobs” (or “his nibs” and “his nobs”) have been interchangeable. However, with the rise of Cribbage Inc., and its lesser president Robert A. “Nibsmonger” Laird, many serious cribbers among us have begun to research which one is the correct one. Although most have reasoned that “nobs” is the correct term, many (most notably the “Nibsmonger” himself!), refuse to yield “nibs”. Many a cribber has argued in vain to come up with a solution, and the debate rages on to this day, and probably will until the end of time.

Whichever term is "historically accurate", nib has a similar meaning as the slang nob. Wiktionary says that one definition is:

(slang, UK) An important or self-important person.

This is slightly different from the aforementioned definition of "nob", but it still seems to refer to someone who believes he is (or is) important. The term "his nibs" has entered into the vocabulary of some, which lead one person to ask for its origins:

This is a mock title used to refer to a self-important man, especially one in authority.... Also, nib itself was once used as a slang term for a gentleman, as was another old slang word still to be heard, nob, and these could very probably be connected. Several early examples of the latter are spelled nab and his nabs is a variant recorded form of his nibs. It seems the vowel was highly fluid, not surprising considering the different dialects and periods it has come through.

The last point brought up in this article may point to the reason there is a "nib/nob" debate--vowels have come to be pronounced differently over time.

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I am not going to downvote because these are reasonable and you have good references on the head definition, but most of the other possibilities feel like revisionist history. Making up what you they want it to be because it is "Sexier" than the simple truth. Occam's razor probably applies here. –  Chad Jul 27 '11 at 16:28
    
@Chad: Thanks, and I get where you're coming from. In this case, no one site had a definitive answer, so I laid out the possibilities. –  simchona Jul 27 '11 at 16:37
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While the two are quite related, though on the back-end of things, as it were, the German term Knabe (ˈknaːbə) and the English term knave - Middle English, from Old English cnafa; akin to Old High German knabo boy; First Known Use: before 12th century mean the same things, when it comes to playing cards. "Nobs", "his nobs", "his nob", "nibs", "his nibs, and "nib" are all respectively declining (and likely chronologically so) variants of "Knabe" with Anglicized respellings.

The terms "right Jack" and "left Jack" are interchangeable with the terms "right bower" and "left bower" in games like Euchre__ALSO borrowed from German and German card games (Skat and its like), bower in English translating from 'Bauer' in German, meaning 'farmer', as opposed to Knabe = lad/boy (in the sense of an innocent) and knave =
1 archaic a : a boy servant b : a male servant c : a man of humble birth or position 2 : a tricky deceitful fellow.

As a related aside, "Bavaria", or Bayern in German (vis-a-vis "Bauern") means "Land of [the]Farmers/Farmers' land(s), or Farmer-land).

Why "jack", then?

"In the game of All Fours, jack is the name of the point awarded for winning a trick containing the knave of trumps. It was therefore also applied to the knave of trumps itself in this game [quoted in Cotton's Compleat Gamester of 1674-80]. Later it also meant any of the knaves [ref. Martin's English Dictionary of 1749].

The word jack also had 'a common man' as one of its meanings.

When it was felt necessary in the middle of the 19th century to label 2 or 4 corners of each card with an index to indicate its value, the makers naturally picked the first initial of two court cards giving the indices K (for the king), Q (for the queen) and the first 2 initals of knave giving Kn. Obviously this was confusing, so by using an alternative term for a common man which was also associated with the knave card, jack, we end up with court indices being an unambiguous K, Q, J (packs do exist with initials K, Q, Kn but this was a short-lived experiment which presumably didn't sell well).

At first jack was considered a lower class term [ref. Dickens's "Great Expectations", 1861; Estelle says mockingly of Pip "He calles the knaves, jacks, this boy!"] but it gained acceptance while knave became obsolete. Modern English usage has knave now left with just one of its original meanings—a scoundrel." - http://i-p-c-s.org/faq/jack+knave.php

As for "his heels",...your guess_ANY guess_is as good as mine.

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Interesting! I find the idea that nob is cognate to Knabe/knave quite compelling. I already knew about bowers and Bauers, and this seems related. It's possible that heel is based on a conflation of nob with its alternate sense meaning “head.” –  Bradd Szonye Oct 15 '13 at 2:42
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'Nob' isn't a title, any more than 'Heels'. If you turn up a jack at the right time, you score two points for his two heels: if you have a jack in your hand at the right time, you score one for his one head or nob.

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Why "heels" for the flip card but "nob" for the card in hand then? –  KitFox Jul 27 '11 at 14:56
    
So you think the points came first, then the names? –  KitFox Jul 27 '11 at 15:21
    
In a sense, yes. "One for the jack" is not very evocative, and may be confusing when "two for the jack" also appears. "Two for his heels" is clear and memorable. –  TimLymington Jul 27 '11 at 15:30
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