A nosy parker is someone who doesn't mind their own business. They will poke their noses into other people's affairs, and attempt to eke out whatever information they can, the more personal the better. A busybody is a near equivalent, and perhaps more familiar term to American speakers.
On the web, several theories abound as to who Mr. Parker might have been.
The first candidate is Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1559 and 1575, and supposedly renowned for his numerous enquiries and investigations into the activities of the English clergy.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), instead, nominates a 1907 picture postcard entitled ‘The Adventures of Nosey Parker’ as being the likeliest candidate.
“the original ‘nosy parker’ was one who played Peeping Tom to love-making couples in Hyde Park.”
From a Daily Express postcard, dated 1918, the physical traits of the character are well-defined. (source)
The lexicographer, Eric Partridge, suggests that Parker is derived from park-keeper, a caretaker of a park or large enclosure of land, at the time of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.
However, all of the references I consulted agreed to reject the authoritarian yet pious Matthew Parker, based on one, indisputable, fact: the phrase ‘nosey parker’ only appeared in print three hundred years after his death. Each one cites the 1890 May issue of Belgravia, as bearing the earliest example in print. What the majority of online sources fail to mention, is that Nosey Parker (note the capital letters) is preceded by a certain Mr. Poll Pry.
"So I says to 'im (you'll understn' as we had been a walkin' out about four months, an' I was gittin' a bit sick of 'im anì his wavs). “now, lookey 'ere, Mr. Poll Pry, you're a asking' too many questions for me, there's too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you, an' I'd 'ave you to know as I'm a laidee, but perhaps you thought as I was a J.an' yer could 'ave me on a bit of toast, but you're mistaken, and so yer 'ad better sling yer ook.”
The last candidate is American, and a woman, but whose last name is not Parker. I discovered a Mrs. Nosey in Locke's National Monthly, 1874
Then turning a corner, we encountered Mrs Nosey. I had great respect for Mrs Nosey. She was a woman one was obliged to respect. I trembled lest I looked dishevelled, lest she should detect something in my eye which hadn't ought to be there. You know her well. She is acute, critical. She has kindly, cat-like ways; but she has, also, a protruberance on her face which nothing escapes. It is as delicate in its groping and detecting as the proboscis of the elephant. People speak well of her in a constrained way: because they dare not whisper their true opinion, lest that nose should protrude through walls and catch them in the act She Nose-s all current events; she can smell secret sins.
The description above tells us that Nosey was an appellation for anyone who exhibited a larger than average-sized nose, but the excerpt also suggests that nosey/nosy meant someone who pried into people's private affairs effortlessly.
- Can someone find an earlier instance of Nosey Parker (or nosy parker) than 1890?
- As to the "identity" of Parker, is there a fourth or fifth possible candidate?
- Is nosy parker used only among British English speakers, as Cambridge and Oxford Dictionaries state? Do Americans call a prying person, nosey/nosy?