Some dictionaries mention an origin involving shoemakers... But I can't say the link is straightforward, really.

5 Answers 5



snob 1781, "a shoemaker, a shoemaker's apprentice," of unknown origin. It came to be used in Cambridge University slang c.1796 for "townsman, local merchant," and by 1831 it was being used for "person of the ordinary or lower classes." Meaning "person who vulgarly apes his social superiors" arose 1843, popularized 1848 by William Thackeray's "Book of Snobs." The meaning later broadened to include those who insist on their gentility, in addition to those who merely aspire to it, and by 1911 had its main modern sense of "one who despises those considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste."


People often claim that this word originated as an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate, meaning 'without nobility' (i.e. 'of a humble social background'). Various accounts of the circumstances in which this abbreviation was supposedly used have been put forward: on lists of names of Oxford or Cambridge students; on lists of ships' passengers (to make sure that only the best people dined at the captain's table); on lists of guests to indicate that no title was required when they were announced.

The theory is ingenious but highly unlikely. The word snob is first recorded in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice. At about this time it was indeed adopted by Cambridge students, but they didn't use it to refer to students who lacked a title or were of humble origins; they used it generally of anyone who was not a student.

By the early 19th century snob was being used to mean a person with no 'breeding', both the honest labourers who knew their place, and the vulgar social climbers who copied the manners of the upper classes. In time the word came to describe someone with an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.

It's quite possible that the phrase sine nobilitate may have appeared in one context or another, but it is difficult to see why it would have given rise to a word for a shoemaker.

PS: many of google books from 18th century seems to OCR the word such as snob making the NGRAM viewer give false positives

Interesting link to a book from 1840 -



I've heard from different sources that snob is short for latin "sin nobile" (or "sin nobilitate" ?). In high-end colleges, pupils which were not of a noble family had "s. nob." written close to their names. And they gained the reputation of trying to mimic, in an outrageous way, the habits of "true nobles"

  • Have you ever noticed, when there's an folk etymology that involves an acronym before about 1940, it's invariably untrue? By way of example, see "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" or "Port Out, Starboard Home". Apr 22, 2011 at 7:40
  • I'm happy to stand corrected on this topic. The folk etymology I reported always looked suspicious to me.
    – Cazaubon
    Apr 23, 2011 at 16:11
  • There are old noble-title families that have used the 's.nob.' reference for longer than indicated in other answers. Hopefully one of them can be coaxed to document this Aug 2, 2016 at 20:06

I came across the snob entry in John Ayto's "Words Origin - The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z", which I quote here in extenso, just for the record although there are several valuable answers already.

Snob originally meant a ‘shoemaker’. Cambridge University students of the late 18th century took it over as a slang term for a "townsman, someone not a member of the university", and it seems to have been this usage which formed the basis in the 1830s for the emergence of the new general sense ‘member of the lower orders’ (‘The nobs have lost their dirty seats – the honest snobs have got ’em’, proclaimed the Lincoln Herald on 22 July 1831, anticipating the new Reform Act).

This in turn developed into ‘ostentatiously vulgar person’, but it was the novelist William Thackeray who really sowed the seeds of the word’s modern meaning in his Book of Snobs 1848, where he used it for ‘someone vulgarly aping his social superiors’.

It has since broadened out to include those who insist on their gentility as well as those who aspire to it.

As for the origins of the word snob itself, they remain a mystery. An ingenious suggestion once put forward is that it came from s. nob., supposedly an abbreviation for Latin sine nobilitate ‘without nobility’, but this ignores the word’s early history.


The NOAD reports the following note about the origin of the word.

ORIGIN late 18th century (originally dialect in the sense ‘cobbler’): of unknown origin; early senses conveyed a notion of "lower status or rank," later denoting a person seeking to imitate those of superior social standing or wealth. Folk etymology connects the word with Latin sine nobilitate, "without nobility", but the earliest recorded sense has no connection with this.


Curious about this shoemaker origin, I put on my Google goggles and found an interesting letter to the editor in a 1762 issue of London Magazine from a Jeffery Snob, shoemaker. Not sure what to make of it. I've thought of several possibilities:

  1. It's just a strange coincidence.
  2. The letter writer anonymized himself with a pseudonym relating to his trade.
  3. It's a fake letter written so the editor could freely editorialize via his fictional Snob.
  4. Ol' Jeff was not only real, but went on to become London's greatest cobbler thus giving us eponymous snob.

If 2. or 3. is the answer, then it's a use of snob=cobbler 19 years earlier than Etymonline has. But I'm sure curious if it's an actual surname. I couldn't find any other examples of folks named Snob other than in a song from 1798, "Doctor Jeremy Snob," where the play on the last name is evident:

I not only patch up your Bodies; But Soles I can likewise renew.

  • +1. Nice catch anyway! The point to clarify is indeed whether 'Snob' is a real surname. If not then it should mean that your second hypothesis is the most probable (and etymonline or whoever they took the etymology from) did not get to the bottom of it. Quite possible, given that Google book is a recent tool. If 'Snob' is a real surname then you might be on to something. Although the match shoemaker/snob seem to have taken root in Cambridge, not in London. Apr 24, 2011 at 23:45
  • I must say I also enjoyed very much the reading of the previous letter to the editor in that link you provided, about the tale of hedgehogs being prevented from having intercourse with the cows to preserve the quality of the milk... Apr 24, 2011 at 23:47
  • @Alain: Thanks. If you liked the hedgehogs, you should try Ngram-ing the f-word sometime and then peruse all the pre-1820 mis-scans of suck with its medial s, and read them as f. Hours of fun. (Not that I've ever done fuch a thing.) Apr 25, 2011 at 0:34
  • S'nob= "Is Nobody" (for a shoemaker, who probably did not have a formal education, instead of "Anonymus" he preferred call himself as "Is nobody" using a slang formula). But Jeremy could be anyone, what made the difference was the "lastname" which take us to a "reference" of "pertaining to". In spanish would have been "Don Nadie".
    – John Doe
    Nov 9, 2020 at 18:12

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