The protagonist of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances is the social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket—or ‘Bouquet’, as she insists it be pronounced. To give the impression that she employs domestic staff, she famously answers her beloved pearl-white slim line telephone with, ‘The Bouquet residence; the lady of the house speaking.’ The very middle-middle class Hyacinth spends most of her efforts trying to impress others in the hope of passing off as posh, while looking down on anyone who does not meet her approval. And this is the simple recipe for five seasons of very British comedy.
It is sometimes said that the word ‘snob’ originates from the Latin sine nobilitate (‘without nobility’), used in abbreviated form—s.nob—on lists of names by Cambridge colleges, passenger ships etc. to distinguish between titled and non-titled individuals. In fact, ‘snob’ was first recorded in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice, though it is true that Cambridge students came to apply it to those outside the university. By the early 19th century, ‘snob’ had come to mean something like ‘a person who lacks breeding’, and then, as social structures became more fluid, ‘a social climber’.
Today, a snob is someone who:
- Accords exaggerated importance to one or more superficial traits such as wealth, social status, beauty, or academic credentials,
- Perceives people with those traits to be of higher human worth,
- Lays claim to those traits for him- or her-self, often unduly, and
- Denigrates those who lack those traits.
So there are three main aspects to snobbery: exaggerating the importance of certain traits, laying claim to those traits, and, last but not least, denigrating those who lack them. “I’m not a snob,” said Simon Le Bon, in jest: “Ask anybody. Well, anybody who matters.”
Snobbery is not simply a matter of discernment, however expensive or refined our tastes may be: a so-called wine ‘snob’, who enjoys and even insists on good wine, may or may not be an actual snob, depending on the degree of his or her prejudice (from the Latin praeiudicium, ‘prior judgement’). Speaking of wine, some young sommeliers, immersed as they are in the world of wine, can come to place undue value on wine knowledge, to the point of deprecating their own patrons—a phenomenon that has been referred to as ‘sommelier syndrome’.
Aside from its obvious unpleasantness to others, snobbery tends to undermine the snob, his achievements, and the interests and institutions that he represents. The Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg did himself, his party, and the U.K. parliament no favours when he compared people who did not go to private school or Oxford or Cambridge to ‘potted plants’.
Snobbery betrays rigidity of thinking and therefore poor judgement, as with those British aristocrats who, despite their expensive educations, admired Hitler’s autocratic style of government. The snob pigeonholes people according to superficial criteria such as their birth, their profession, or, especially in England, the way they speak, and, on that basis, either regards or disregards them. Like the wine lover who will only drink certain labels, the snob often passes over real value, quality, or originality. As company, he is an endless bore, constantly detracting from the rich texture of life and quite unable to marvel at anything except through himself.
Closely related to snobbery, and presenting some of the same pitfalls, is ‘inverse snobbery’. Inverse snobbery is the disdain for those same traits that the snob might hold in high regard, combined with admiration, whether real or feigned, for the popular, the ordinary, and the commonplace—and not just with the aim of winning an election. Inverse snobbery can be understood, in large part, as an ego defense against the status claims of others; and it is possible, indeed common, to be both a snob and an inverse snob.
But what about snobbery itself? Like inverse snobbery, snobbery can be interpreted as a symptom of social insecurity. Social insecurity may be rooted in childhood experiences, especially feelings of shame at being different, or an early sense of privilege or entitlement that cannot later be realized. Or it may be the simple result of rapid social change. With Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the ebbing of power from traditional, cultured elites has led, on all sides, to a surge in both snobbery and inverse snobbery.
In a similar vein, some snobbery may represent a reaction to an increasingly egalitarian society, reflecting a deeply ingrained human instinct that some people are better than others, that these people are more fit to rule, and that their rule tends to yield better outcomes—though, of course, one need not be a snob to share that instinct. In that much, snobbery can serve as a mechanism of class surveillance and control, as can, paradoxically, inverse snobbery, serving to entrench social hierarchies.
Finally, at an extreme, snobbery may be a manifestation of narcissistic personality disorder or broader psychopathy … which points to its antidote, namely, empathy—including towards the snob.
Snobbery, said Joseph Epstein, ‘is the desire for what divides men and the inability to value what unites them.’