On Snobbishness

An oddity of language just occurred to me, and I thought I’d share. I was pondering another intended post, and the opening line that occurred to me was, “I find I am becoming an [X] snob.” At this point, I got distracted by considering the way the word “snob” seems to be changing in use.

The definition of snob, according the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is:

1 British : COBBLER
2 : one who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors
3 a : one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior b : one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste

Clearly, I was thinking more of definitions 2 and 3 here. (Snob = cobbler? We learn new things every day.) These are both familiar definitions, and both also quite negative in their connotations. But that was hardly what I really meant when I noted I was turning into a “snob” on a particular subject. I suppose it’s really more of an ironic, self-deprecatory use of the word.

There are so many kinds of snobs that people call themselves now: wine snob, music snob, car snob, book snob. You can be a “snob,” in this new sense, about pretty much anything you take enough of an interest in to have an actual opinion. Does this seem odd? Is it now so strange for people to have opinions about things they have experience with and knowledge about that we have to put ourselves down about it, turn it into a joke? Is anyone who doesn’t follow the mainstream general wisdom about something now automatically a snob? Is this another sign of the current anti-intellectualism? Then again, maybe it’s just that calling oneself an “expert” seems too exaggerated.

So what do you think? Is there a better term? And what are you a snob about?


6 Responses to On Snobbishness

  1. TheGnat says:

    Most of the people I know only call themselves a “snob” when it’s a topic they feel it’s a little silly to have either such a strong but non-professional interest in, or a little silly to have strong opinions about.

    I think if you want to say you are very knowledgeable about a topic, but don’t want to call yourself an expert, “geek” is better. I don’t think it’s nearly as negative, and these days it isn’t really negative at all. It isn’t really a matter of anti-intellectualism, but perhaps a matter of false modesty or of the deepening specialization of post-industrial society?

    <.< I’m not an anything snob. I am, however, a complete japanophile, through and through, and a gaming geek (video, tabletop, and board!). I’m a language geek, too!

    Also, this post has murdered the English language, and I don’t care because the English language had it coming!!!

  2. laikal says:

    I also call myself a snob when I’m acknowledging a set of prejudices about something meaningless or fashion-related, like, say, coffee or wine. I often deploy it thusly: “I really like this Prosecco, but then again I’m a bit of a snob…” roughly equates to: “I admit my opinion is heavily biased by my current fashion, but I think Prosecco is nice.”

    Geekery is becoming, in my opinion, demonstrating excessive expertise outside one’s chosen profession–where it used to be limited to people that did dorky things. I broadly equate “being a geek” with “expertise”. It’s hard to geek out about something you don’t know much about, after all!

    I suspect that the trend of referring to oneself as a snob has something to do with the state of marketing in our advanced capitalist society; briefly, we’ve so much opportunity for consumption and the notion that we should define ourselves in part by our patterns or choices in consumption is fairly endemic–of course we form opinions about the things we like! Some of them we’re probably self-conscious enough about to refer to as snobbery :).

    Watching language patterns is pretty fascinating!

  3. Matthew says:

    You know, I never thought of that second definition as snobbery. The whole brown-nosing social climbing thing. But as much as snob has negative connotations, I’ve always gotten the impression that it was somehow genuine. You could be a snob, but if you were a snob you weren’t a poseur, if that makes sense. When I hear someone refer to themselves as a snob, it’s usually in relation to giving a negative opinion about something, rather than a demonstration of expertise. ‘I don’t like Starbucks, but I’m a coffee snob’ ‘I’m a coffee snob so I only drink shade-grown fair-trade Arabica’ (implication: all other coffee sucks). So being a snob involves making a value judgement, but not expertise, while being a geek implies not only expertise, but enthusiasm.

  4. Matthew Sayre says:

    Actually, further thought. I don’t really think geek implies expertise, just enthusiasm, regardless of professional capacity. I have a friend named Josh who is a computer engineer, he works at computer engineering, he likes computer engineering, and if given half a chance he will quite cheerfully talk about computer engineering until forcibly stopped. So you can be a geek about something you do work at.

    On the other hand, walking my wife into work today, we talked about her stitch and bitch groups (it’s a knitting thing in case you’re curious) both in Bangor, where we just moved from, and here in Columbus. In Bangor the stitch and bitch group was made up of a large number of people who really weren’t very good at knitting, but were quite enthusiastic about it. They talked about patterns, and projects, and needles, without any capacity for knitting anything more complicated than a scarf. I would argue that this group was ‘geeking out’ without any large degree of expertise.

    I also find myself wondering, without a good answer what it means to be a geek in general. It implies a certain intellectualness. You can be a culture geek, but if you care about organized teams you’re a sports fan, not a geek. A sports fan can have ridiculous numbers of statistics readily available on team sports (I remember the scene in City Slickers where they talk about baseball statistics and show off), but they’re not really considered ‘geeks’ by the culture at large like a RPG geek or computer geek would be. Is it a matter of general acceptance? Do some geeks claim what may have some leftover negative connotations as a badge of pride? Geek used to be an insult, as did nerd.

    Back to snob for a second, now that I look back at my post it’s slightly incoherent. The second definition in the first post described a snob as a social climber, someone who is in a lower social stratum seeking to climb to another higher one. I’ve always thought of a snob as someone who had reached a social stratum they were satisfied with, and enjoyed lording it over those who hadn’t achieved it. However, they had reached that social stratum, they weren’t pretending that they had reached it, so it came with a certain amount of social status, you couldn’t be a snob unless you had standing. So portraying a bum on the street being a snob would have a certain absurd humor, portraying a rich person being snobbish would be satirical humor.

  5. laikal says:

    Other Matt,

    You’re probably right that “geekery” is an intellectual thing, and generally reserved for those activities or topics that have traditionally been looked down on as compared to, say, knowing random things about Baseball. The knitters you know who “geek out” about knitting without being very good at it–perhaps you might say they have expertise *about* knitting, but not much expertise *in doing* knitting?

    As in: is geekery knowing a lot about something but not necessarily knowing how to do it?

    I also agree that the social climbing definition is well antiquated at this point.

  6. TheGnat says:

    Well, the social knitting group clearly had knowledge about it, and probably even on the hows. They just all had no talent ^_- How many art historians couldn’t make a piece of art themselves to save their lives?

    To me, sports fans are also “geeks” or “nerds”, we just call them “fans” because that’s an accepted nerdiness (and there are plenty of fans who aren’t geeks about it!). At this point I think it has more to do with “acceptability” than “intellectualism”.

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