Every day, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary chooses a “Word of the Day.” Yesterday it was “nobby,” which M-W defined as “cleverly stylish; chic, smart.” It derives from the noun “nob,” meaning a person of wealth or social distinction. (Interestingly it doesn’t appear to be etymologically related to “snob.”) There was no mention of the word being a Britishism, but it is. It doesn’t appear in the archives of the New York Times, and the only quote M-W gives is from the British magazine The New Statesman: “Sponsorship of nobby events seems to be the favourite PR trick for City firms in the soup.”

Similarly, almost all the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are from British sources. The exceptions are the American Anglophiles Cole Porter (“Nowadays it’s rather nobby/To regard one’s private hobby/As the object of one’s tenderest affections”) and S.J. Perelman (“A serried row of floodlit edifices..trumpeted to the newcomer that he was in the nobbiest winter playground ever devised”).

Incidentally, the OED notes in its definition that the word is “In later use depreciative,” that is, mocking. Merriam-Webster appeared to be unaware of this and took some heat on Twitter:


12 thoughts on ““Nobby”

  1. As I imagine you are aware, a well-known historical neighborhood in San Francisco is Nob Hill, not sure of its historical British connections (if any).

  2. In the UK it is common practice to give someone having the surname ‘Clark(e)’ the nickname ‘Nobby’. I have heard that this is because England’s kings of old would father children all over the place and when a discarded flame would arrive at court carrying a baby and claiming it was as a result of His Majesty’s dalliance, it would often be provided for (in exchange for the mother’s discretion) with an allowance, an education and – when old enough – being literate, a position as a clerk, i.e. scribe, accountant, etc. People would know these bastards were ‘noble’ or ‘nobility’ and would call them such, the diminutive form being ‘Nobby’. Does anyone know if this is legend or fact?

    The British, referring to the job in an office (filing clerk, accounts clerk) always spell it with an ‘e’ but always pronounce it as if an ‘a’. I am glad I don’t have to learn English as a foreigner.

    Where did you get that hat? Where did you get that tile?
    Isn’t it a nobby one and just the proper style.
    I should like to have one just the same as that.
    Wherever I go they shout ‘Hello! Where did you get that hat?’

    Music hall song 1888

  3. I’m sure I’ve only heard it in the UK in the context it was in Private Eye,but being a humorous shorting of “nobility” (meaning of belonging to the aristocracy).

  4. The recent use of ‘nob’ as an insult is I believe a mis-spelling of the word ‘knob’ which (of course) means penis. the former use of Nob (often capitalised) meant ‘member of the Nobility’. ‘Nobby’ therefore means ‘posh’ or ‘good quality’.

  5. Also I have to leave this here:

    His name was Nobby ‘All [Hall], Nobby ‘All
    His name was Nobby ‘All, Nobby ‘All
    Hi name was Nobby ‘All
    And he only had one… [pause…] finger,
    His name was Nobby ‘All, Nobby ‘All!

    Subsequent verses:
    He went to rob a bank
    And on the way he had a [pause…] sandwich.
    The policeman’s name was Rick
    and he had a great big [pause…] truncheon.
    The judge’s name was Hunt
    And he was a great big [pause…] lawyer

    Various other, extremely rude, versions are to be found online.

  6. I think “Archaism of the Day” rather than “Word of the Day”. The only reason I know the term in its sense of stylish is from the music hall song quoted above and that only because of a TV programme the Beeb used to show 40 plus years ago called, “The Good Old Days” which was a recreation of a Victorian/Edwardian Music Hall. The nickname usage isn’t that common either these days.

  7. The street-urchin, petty chief, and later policeman in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is called Nobby Nobbs. I assume ironically (he is the only human known to need to carry a declaration, signed by Lord Vetinari to the effect that; “following affidavits from the midwife and a doctor, I confirm that the bearer is, in all probability, human.”).

    But Discworld Wiki points out that “Nobby” is apparently also a slang term for a policeman – https://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Nobby_Nobbs – which I didn’t know.

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