Some dictionaries mention an origin involving shoemakers... But I can't say the link is straightforward, really.
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"
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:
- It's just a strange coincidence.
- The letter writer anonymized himself with a pseudonym relating to his trade.
- It's a fake letter written so the editor could freely editorialize via his fictional Snob.
- 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.