The present, commonly understood, meaning of the word “snobs” is an inversion of it original meaning. Students at Cambridge first used the word as a derogatory term for townees. It is a locally-developed student slang slur for a shoemaker or a shoemaker’s apprentice: cobblers were called snobs. Snobs became anyone who didn’t have money or a Cambridge education. “Who cares about that dude, buddy’s just some snob.”
Might have remained that way were it not for Thackeray, William Makepeace. Thackeray began writing a weekly column called The Snobs of England (these are the Snob Papers) in which he satirized the social class that had created, and continued to use, derogatory words of haughty condescension such as snobs. The column was a hit, maybe even more than Makepeace might have liked. Thackeray kept churning out snob criticism so long that the snobs eventually turned on him, accused him of personal envy. William, you’re just jealous. William, you need to get out more. William, it was really nothing. That sort of thing.
The criticism was unjust. Thackeray’s supposed light criticism is salient social commentary on a world no longer ordered. Rapid industrialization had made a lot of not noble people a shit ton of pound-olas. At the same time, a lot of the absolutely best peerage-y people in all the best clubs were becoming skint (as their inherited wealth dwindled), possessed no discernible skill or talent, and were utterly riddled with vice. Thackeray observes that the concept of snobbery results from the incipient collapse of English social order. If there was never a possibility for townies to advance, no one would much mind them. “That’s alright, that’s ok, you’re going pump my gas one day,” as business students across the English-speaking world like to holler, usually when they have just lost embarrassingly at something. If, however, your own family’s great Lord estate was crumbling, while, at the same time, the shop-owner’s son is wearing better suits than you, you need to gain your advantage back somehow. And, so, you rely on your superior education and invent a whole schwack of made-up rules, on what it is to be a gentleman or a lady, and you start to talk all posh-spice and maybe take to cricket so everyone knows how much better than them you are.
Thackeray says no—thank you very kindly—to that noise. By excoriating the excesses and pretenses of his own class, Thackeray seeks to address the critical problem caused by the new and profound instability of the concept of class itself. The self-made person is always middle class. You cannot be a self-made aristocrat. No one boasts of being a self-made proletarian. Only the middle class gets to invent itself and Thackeray considers this question: what should the aspiring self-made bourgeois, aspire to, exactly? Thackeray’s critics maybe felt that, by the end of his great snob onslaught, he had identified and decried so many faults in his friends and fellow upper-crusters, that all he’d really done was show the world what a vindictive, and thoroughly unpleasant fellow, he was. Buddy took a lot of heat for writing the things he did.
I bought this book (pictured above. 1978, New York: St. Martin's Press) a couple of months after I moved from Montreal to Saskatoon. The shop was a two-storey antiquarian place, not far from Amigo’s. I went back to the same bookstore a couple weeks later. I was real scruffy in the last years of Mile End, but well towards the conservative end of the Mile End scruff spectrum. My hair was growing out some, and my beard was mid-length and wild. I wasn’t used to attracting any sort of attention.
It took me a while to figure it out, but the bookshop owner was tailing me. I was already a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and I just assumed the guy had a lot of reshelving to do. People didn’t profile me! But when I went G for Gissing, he was right at my elbow. I went back T for Thackeray and within seconds there he was again. Over to C for Cather and then he just stared at me openly and intently until I left. The snobs of 2007 Saskatoon thought scruffy long-hairs like me were all thieves. Even former customers. Money can’t buy you respect.
Note: The Editor’s Introduction (St, Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1978) to the copy pictured above is by John Sutherland. I am indebted to it for its excellent discussion of class and Thackeray’s contribution to theorizing through satire its newfound instability.