A snob is a person who believes in the existence of an equation between status and human worth. The term also refers to a person who believes that some people are inherently inferior to him or her for any one of a variety of reasons, including real or supposed intellect, wealth, education, ancestry, power, physical strength, class, taste, beauty, nationality, fame, extreme success of a family member or friend, etc. Often this form of snobbery reflects the snob's personal attributes. For example, a common snobbery of the affluent is the belief that wealth is either the cause or result of superiority, or both. Both definitions are used as a pejorative.
The word "snobbery" came into use the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility) or s.nob. next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic schoolmates. These common, but typically wealthy students would then acquire symbols of aristocratic status (driver, maid etc.), and were then mocked as "snobs" by the aristocrats. After the later changing of the meaning of the term "snob," people who emulate aristocrats are now referred to as "snob victims."
The term "snob" is often misused when describing a "gold-tap owner," i.e. a person who insists on displaying (sometimes non-existing) wealth through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods (clothes, jewelry, cars etc.). Such person on the contrary craves the attention of snobs, trying to convince them with such consumption of his or her wealth and therefore status. Sophisticated snobs will then often assess that in such case there is no equation between (apparent) wealth and status, reducing the gold-tap owner to the object of their mockery. Such person is referred to as a snob victim. The snob victim may be exploited economically by being deceived by a seller of aspirational goods (by means of e.g. advertising) into believing that status can indeed be acquired through consumption of such goods.
Snobs can through time be found ingratiating themselves with a range of prominent groups – soldiers (Sparta, 400 BC), bishops (Rome, 1500), poets (Weimar, 1815), farmers (China, 1967) - for the primary interests of snobs is power, and as the distribution of power changes, so, naturally and immediately, will the objects of the snob's admiration.
Snobbery existed also in mediaeval feudal aristocratic Europe, when the clothing, manners, language and tastes of every class were strictly codified by customs or law. Chaucer, a poet moving in the court circles, noted the provincial French spoken by the Prioress among the Canterbury pilgrims:
And French she spoke full fair and fetisly
After the school of Stratford atte Bowe,For French of Paris was to her unknowe.
William Rothwell notes "the simplistic contrast between the 'pure' French of Paris and her 'defective' French of Stratford atte Bowe that would invite disparagement." The disparagement is an element of the snobbery.
Snobbery surfaced more strongly as the structure of the society changed, and the bourgeoisie had the possibility to imitate aristocracy. Snobbery appears when elements of culture are perceived as belonging to an aristocracy or elite, and some people (the snobs) feel that the mere adoption of the fashion and tastes of the elite or aristocracy is sufficient to include someone in the elites, upper classes or aristocracy.
However, a form of snobbery can be adopted by someone not a part of that group; a pseudo-intellectual, a celebrity worshipper, and a poor person idolizing money and the rich are types of snobs who do not base their snobbery on their personal attributes. Such a snob idolizes and imitates, if possible, the manners, worldview, and lifestyle of a classification of people to which they aspire, but do not belong, and to which they may never belong (wealthy, famous, intellectual, beautiful, etc.).
William Hazlitt observed, in a culture where deference to class was accepted as a positive and unifying principle, "Fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity, and afraid of being overtaken by it," adding subversively, "It is a sign the two things are not very far apart." The English novelist Bulwer-Lytton remarked in passing, "Ideas travel upwards, manners downwards." It was not the deeply ingrained and fundamentally accepted idea of "one's betters" that has marked snobbery in traditional European and American culture, but "aping one's betters".
Snobbery is a defensive expression of social insecurity, flourishing most where an Establishment has become less than secure in the exercise of its traditional prerogatives, and thus it was more an organizing principle for Thackeray's glimpses of British society in the threatening atmosphere of the 1840s than it was of Hazlitt, writing in the comparative social stability of the 1820s.
- De Botton, A. (2004), Status Axiety. London: Hamish Hamilton
- Rothwell, "Stratford Atte Bowe re-visited" The Chaucer Review, 2001.
- The social historian G.M. Trevelyan referred to the deferential principle in British society as "beneficent snobbery", according to Ray 1955:24.
- Hazlitt, Conversations with Northcote, quoted in Gordon N. Ray, "Thackeray's 'Book of Snobs'", Nineteenth-Century Fiction 10.1 (June 1955:22-33) p. 25; Ray examines the context of snobbery in contemporaneous society.
- Bulwer-Lytton, England and the English, noted in Ray 1955:24.
- See: Ray 1955:25f.
- Joseph Epstein, "In a snob-free zone": "Is there a place where one is outside all snobbish concerns—neither wanting to get in anywhere, nor needing to keep anyone else out?"