I'm looking for a term or expression that would fit in an 1800's context. It's a derogatory term I once heard used by a person of middle or lower class to describe a person who is a nobleman by birth but who lacks the common sense that comes with real experience.

For example, a sailor might talk behind the back of a captain who only got the job because of highborn status.

The term highborn itself could work if used right, but there's another term that's more inherently demeaning.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 15:36

4 Answers 4


When in the 1800s? Toff would be the perfect choice here, but it isn't found any earlier than 1851, and I would be shy of putting it into the speech of anyone until at least 1855 (maybe a bit braver if they were in the Midlands, East or South East of England).

After that though, it would be a common word that matches your description perfectly.

(It's still in use, but not as much as before, having peaked in the first half of the 20th century).

Edit: Comment says this is set in the very beginning of the 19th century. That rules out toff and even haw-haw (around 1825), and beerage is right-out (1880s).

His nibs is an interesting example, but just too late (first attested 1821).

You could take a punt on haw-haw and his nibs on the basis that the first spoken use is likely slightly earlier than the first printed, but it would be a stretch.

Nob is an interesting one and might be apt. It's often understood as a contraction of noble, but while that's probably an influence, white-knob also spelled white-nob is found in the late 18th century until early 19th meaning an upper- or upper-middle class person in reference to the white wigs they would wear and it got contracted to nob. Hob-nob was likely also a further interest.

In any case, nob hits your meaning and was in use in your time, and white-knob also hits it, was in use, and has firmly died-out since, so it might be favoured as giving more temporal flavour.

  • Unfortunately, my writing is set during the very beginning of the century. It is a very good word, though.
    – AaronF
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 21:09

What about either a dandy or a fop

dandy (n) : a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance.

fop (n): a man who is concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way

These are both used to describe noblemen who are percieved as out of touch. Another option with a slightly different connotation is a rake

  • 2
    I wouldn't say that either word was linked to the nobility. The famous 'Beau' Brummell was of middle class background but was accepted into high society because his sense of style was so much admired. 'Rake' refers to a man's morals rather than his commonsense. Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 9:14

Ninny might fit what you're looking for. Though the definition does not specifically target high born people, the word is old, so its 'pedigree' might suit a commoner to mock a noble person behind their back. Maybe used with some colourful adjectives.

ninny /ˈnɪnɪ/


(pl) -nies

  1. a dull-witted person

ninnyish, adjective

Ninny on dictionary.com

At least with origins supposedly pre 1600s, it's certainly old enough.


Upper class twit comes to mind.


Hugh Laurie was brilliant at portraying such characters, but he seems to have gotten tired of that type of role, For example in Jeeves and Wooster and Blackadder:


Here's an example from Monty python: Upper class twit of the year

  • Any indication if those were around in the 1800s?
    – Helmar
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 11:40
  • @Helmar the character certainly existed. The George character from Blackadder is based on the real life prince regent George from the 1800s. Such characters were a real problem at the time when they ended up in high ranking positions in the military because their fathers bought them military comissions.I just checked N-gram and it suggests coinage of the term around the 1970's, so perhaps it would be an anachronism to have an 1800s character use the term. Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 11:52
  • 1
    twit is 1930s. The phrase "upper-class twit" would have been found since then, but became a set phrase with the Monty Python sketch you cite, which was broadcast in 1970.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 12:37

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