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Regarding snobbery

Your Humble Blogger is concerned about the word snob. Because, one supposes, as a Very Pretentious Person, it behooves YHB to use the word in some sense that is technically correct but uncommon, and to both eschew and deprecate the common use of the word. But really, is John Scalzi even Regarding Snobbery at all?

Snobbery, as I understand it, is rooted in aristocracy: a snob is someone who would rather dine with the Earl’s idiot cad of a son than with the brightest commoner in the world. Snobbery is fundamentally in opposition to merit of any kind (unless you count blood as merit, in which case, snob). Also, while snobbery expresses itself in scorn for the lower middle classes, it equally expresses itself in obsequious sycophancy among those lower middle classes to the upper classes. Snobs and nobs. Mr. Meagles from Little Dorrit is the great example of a snob; Mr. Dickens treats it as an unfortunate affliction.

Of course, the idea of snobbery spreads beyond the nobility. In the United States, where there were no nobles, there was still hereditary snobbery, with the descendants of the Mayflower families taking precedence along with some others of the Best People. There was still good breeding, and if American snobs weren’t quite up to their British cousins, they still drew the line at dining with riffraff like artists and Irishmen. This kind of class-based snobbery is still surprisingly relevant among the families that care about it, although it’s broadened out to be closer to common or garden classism, rather than snobbery as such.

Then there are intellectual snobs. As with real snobs, an intellectual snob would rather dine with a vicious, dishonest and foul-smelling graduate of Bryn Mawr than an kind, elegant and well-groomed drop-out of Enormous State University. Or Harvard, for that matter. Intellectual snobbery is also classism, for the most part, but has at least the advantage of being relatively egalitarian#&8212;when an intellectual snob discovers that her plumber went to Bowdoin, the snob is willing to treat that plumber like an almost-equal (depending on the snob’s own alma mater).

Mr. Scalzi, though, is using snob to mean something else entirely, as far as I can tell. His description of the snob’s attitude as This stuff is awesome because I like it; this stuff sucks because I don’t; those who like the things I do not are stupid seems to me to describe the fan rather than the snob. I don’t think you can be a Doctor Who snob, for instance—there are obsessive types who know all the episodes by title, author, script editor and original air date snobs if they look down on the rest of us and assume that we have nothing interesting or useful to say about the show, but I don’t think I would call them snobs. Nor would I call foodies food snobs, because they are properly called foodies. Theater snobs? Chocolate snobs? Footwear snobs? Do people use those terms? Do those of us who prefer better quality tea leaves call ourselves tea snobs?

This is what I’m asking: do people call themselves snobs? If they do, is it a joke? I mean, I call myself an intellectual snob fairly frequently, but it’s a joke on myself and my own weakness rather than a badge of honor. For Mr. Scalzi’s kind of snob, well, I have strong opinions about what I like and dislike, and I suppose denigrate the riffraff who like rubbish as much as the next blogger, but I wouldn’t proclaim myself a snob because of it. I think I use the term as an insult to other people (I’m not sure, as I often tune myself out) who have unreasoning prejudices, as someone who might refuse to enjoy bowling or bluegrass or bratwurst, but if I do, I’m using it as a sloppily insulting version of classist. If a Lipton-drinker called me a tea snob, I would understand what such a person was getting at, but then, I know lots of very wonderful people who drink Red Rose or even Bigelow; I wouldn’t refuse to dine with such people tho’ I might well attempt to convert them…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Short version of my response: I agree with you about use of “snob,” but then, I'm a language snob. :)

Even shorter version: I think the word is used both ways.

Much longer thoughts:

I encounter the phrase “wine snob” fairly often; Googling that led me to Wine Snobbery Explained at snobsite.com. I like what I've seen so far of the site; it seems smart but sensible. For example, in Film Snobbery Explained they explain that their book Film Snob's Dictionary is meant as a guide for non-snobs to how to see the good films that snobs like while avoiding the bad ones.

As for me personally, I occasionally call myself a “natural materials snob.” By which I mean:

Show me two articles of clothing. Tell me that one of them (even the one that I otherwise like less) is made of cotton or wool, and the other of polyester; I will instantly become dissatisfied with the polyester one, even if I cannot tell in any way what it's made from. (I make an exception for microfiber, though.)

Show me a nice stone pathway in a garden. Let me admire it. Then tell me that the stones are actually shaped and colored concrete. I will immediately think less of them.

And so on. This usage is, as you note, “a joke on myself and my own weakness rather than a badge of honor.” Most of me thinks it's silly and ridiculous to care more about the alleged materials something is made from (“alleged” because in most cases I have no way of knowing for sure) than about my own aesthetic reactions.

I also have another form of snobbery: a sort of quality-of-makership snobbery for certain things. This comes up in situations where I can tell the difference, but where most people can't and don't care. I look at a 72-dpi photograph posted online and I get annoyed by the dithering; Mary Anne literally can't see the difference. I get pleasure from well-crafted HTML code or nice typography, and a certain aesthetic pain from poorly-crafted HTML code or bad typography—but most people can't tell the difference, and I can only tell the difference up to a point. (The people who know more about typography than I do—of whom there are many—have opinions that are as weird to me as mine must be to people who know nothing about it.) After talking with Michael, I know some of the things to look for in high-quality book printing/binding, but those features are completely invisible to most people.

Oh, and I get really frustrated when people try to parody Dr. Seuss (or try to write limericks) but do it badly because they can't hear stress patterns and thus can't do good scansion. This is one where I don't think of myself as being an unreasonable snob—but the truth is, most people don't care at all about this.

Hmm. Interesting; I hear this usage a lot, actually. Just the other day I was listening to a discussion on local radio about the prevalence, in my home town of New Haven, CT, of pizza snobs. A pizza snob, of course, is someone who doesn't merely prefer Sally's or Pepe's (or Modern) -- New Haven's iconic brick oven pizza places -- over other pizza, but who views other pizza as, fundamentally, a kind of different and inferior object, and really can't understand or communicate with someone who likes other pizza. (I have enough of this particular attitude to understand it; I remember being flabbergasted by discussion of whether Renato's was better that Swarthmore Pizza.) Note that a pizza snob may (and certainly will) prefer Pepe's over Sally's or (I suppose) vice versa, but I wouldn't say they're a Pepe's snob -- the point of the Pepe's v. Sally's thing is that both are considered part of the world of acceptable pizza -- so much as a pizza snob.

Similarly I wouldn't guess there are Dr. Who snobs so much as TV snobs -- people who may prefer Dr. Who to Firefly, or vice versa, but who really can't even talk to folks who prefer, I don't know, Big Brother.

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