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A snob 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, et cetera. Often the 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.
Popular etymology hold that the word "snob" comes from "sine nobilitate" or "sans noblesse" meaning "without nobility"; however, this is incorrect.citation needed
Snobbery existed even 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 fetisly1
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."2 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,3 "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."4 The English novelist Bulwer-Lytton remarked in passing, "Ideas travel upwards, manners downwards."5 It was not the deeply ingrained and fundamentally accepted idea of "one's betters" that has marked snobbism 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.6
- Fetisly: nicely.
- 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 toRay 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?"
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