Anne here, starting off with a one-question mini-quiz. In the Regency-era (1811—1820), what was a snob? (Hint: these are all true dictionary definitions.)
a) A shoemaker or cobbler; a cobbler's apprentice.
b) A game of cricket played with a soft ball and a thick stick in lieu of a bat.
c) The last sheep to be sheared; the roughest or most difficult sheep to shear.
d) Any one not a gownsman (university student); a townsman.
e) A person belonging to the ordinary or lower social class; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility.
f) A person who has little or no breeding or good taste; a vulgar or ostentatious person.
g) A person who admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of higher social status or greater wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance.
h) A person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.
And the answer(s) are both a and d.
What, you say? When did 'snob' as we mostly use it today come into use? According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) snob as defined in answer h) above, didn't come into use until 1911. The OED lists the first time a word was found in print, so it's likely that spoken usage came a little earlier.
It's interesting that it's the last definition that is the one most used today, and yet it is also the most recent. It's also interesting to me that several versions of 'snob' (d, e, f and g) in the past are almost the direct opposite of what we think of a snob today, and refer to 'outsiders' of some sort.
Out of interest, the dates the OED lists for the earliest known use of each meaning of snob are as follows:
a) a shoemaker or apprentice — 1785
b) a game like cricket —1888
c) the last sheep — 1945 (used mainly in Australia and NZ)
d) an ordinary non-university person (it was a Cambridge term) — 1796
e) a lower class person — 1831
f) a vulgar or ostentatious person —1838
g) someone who copies or tries to be part of the upper class — 1848
h) a person who looks down on those they consider inferior — 1911
One of the defining features of the Regency was snobbishness, and yet they had no word for it. And that's a key to attitudes of the time. These days, if we call someone a snob it's generally a negative comment, a pejorative description.
But as we all know, English is a constantly evolving language, and meanings and word usage change over time. Exclusive is another one — these days it's mostly used to mean prestigious or even glamorous, but it originally meant to exclude, or shut out
In the Regency-era, a new wealthy middle class was rising, factory owners and entrepreneurs were threatening the hereditary preeminence of the aristocracy and the aristocracy were battling to maintain their superior position. So they used terms like exclusive, discriminating, refined, keeping up standards and so on — and regarded it as A Good Thing.
Private gentlemen's clubs were discreetly though firmly exclusive — they excluded people they didn't want. New members had to be nominated by other members, and then voted on by secret ballot by the rest of the membership, through the use of black and white balls — white for approval, black for rejection. This system is still in use by many private clubs around the world today, and we all know what is meant when we hear that someone was 'black balled'.
The famous club of Almack's was a ladies' version — and their approval system was unashamedly public. It was partly "who you knew" but that was only the first step. To visit Almack's you had to apply to and be approved by a small group of intensely snobbish and controlling society women — the patronesses. Without a voucher from them you had no hope of ever getting in.
A Regency author I know once said to me, "My heroines never go to Almack's. I mean, Almack's — all those stupid rules and then stale bread and cake with lemonade — how boring."
It seemed to me that she entirely missed the point. Yes, people at the time probably did complain about the rigidity of the rules at Almacks, and the refreshments were certainly nothing to write home about, and the entertainments fairly ordinary. And the patronesses were dictatorial and horribly snobbish.
And while that might not appeal to us today, exclusivity, not refreshments was the whole point. The plain suppers were deliberate — they weren't trying to complete with private balls that served lavish suppers — and besides, they weren't exactly stale — the bread was very thinly sliced for buttering and you can't do that with very fresh bread. As for the 'dry' cake, 'dry' in that sense meant without icing; it would be something like a plain pound cake.
Almack's was all about the company, the prestige of being part of a very exclusive group — the 'in' crowd. It was harder to get a voucher to Almacks than to be presented to the Queen. You could be incredibly rich, and still be refused a voucher. You might be poor but of 'good family' (ie aristocratic lineage) and receive vouchers. You might be of good family, but if your behavior wasn't up to the standards set by the patronesses, you would receive no vouchers.
In other words, you would be blackballed. And who wants to be blackballed? It's one thing to choose not to attend Almack's, it's quite another not to be allowed admission to mingle with the cream of high society. And to have your voucher withdrawn meant that you'd been tried and found wanting — the ultimate social failure— if you cared about that sort of thing, of course. Not everyone did. But parents with marriageable sons and daughters certainly would, I think.
Almack's was the place where you could bring your children and be sure of meeting the best possible candidates for marriage, if by 'best' you mean well-connected and more or less well-behaved. Parental do the same thing today — sending their children to the 'best' schools and universities in the hope that they will meet, make friends with and eventually marry people of a similar background and cement their position in influential society.
So, snobbery might not be a term Regency aristocrats used, but in practice they were proudly and unashamedly snobbish. And though people today tend to deny their own snobbery, it's still very much alive today, though in different forms.
I'll happily admit to being a bit of a coffee snob. As a romance writer I regularly encounter literary snobs, and one of my friends is a terrible wine snob and is so busy showing off his knowledge that he never seems to actually enjoy most wine. And I know people who repeatedly line up in the (vain) hope of being admitted to nightclubs known for 'exclusivity" — they choose or reject patrons at the door.
What about you — what kind of snobbery do you see in society today? Do some kinds bug you more than others? And what do you have snobbish tendencies about?