The usage of the verb snob

Le verbe snober vient du nom anglais snob, emprunté par le français. Mais il ne se dit pas snob en anglais — je parle toujours du verbe —, mais snub. Peu surprenant que certains anglophones s’y perdent. Et même plus que ça : on trouve une foule de formations verbales faites à partir de snob, toutes absentes des dictionnaires.

When the sentence “He [Karl Marx] would probably snob his nose at it [blogging]” flickered by me on IRC some hours ago, I just thought that this was a nice blend of snob n., snub v. and the idiom turn up one’s nose at sth., possibly influenced by the semantically less pertinent snub-nosed. The pure eggcorn snub»snob was bound to be out there, so I set out to find cites and enter it into the Eggcorn Database.

Boy, I got more than I had bargained for. Not only is snob v. tr. a frequent eggcorn, it has also entered certain slangs and dialects, as in this example from the Wingham Chronicle, an Australian paper, talking about sheep shearers in the outback:

  • Good pen mates will share the sheep and work together as a team but as Rod explains […] if you draw a ‘Hungry’ pen mate and he ‘snobs you’ (goes to the back of the pen and picks all the best sheep) your count for the day could be severely affected, or you’d have to work your guts out to give him the same medicine to stop him from ‘snobbing the hell out of you’! (link)

Unsurprising, really — after all, snub so. is snober quelqu’un in French, derived from the borrowed snob.

But the example also contains snob the hell out of so., which, it turns out, opens a whole nother can of fish. In the sense behave like a snob, or close to it, transitive, intransitive or with a prepositional complement, I found snob so. off, snob so. away, snob it, snob so. into sth. and snob at sth.. And then there are the totally non-eggcornish derivatives of snob n.: out-snob so., de-snob, snob sth. up , and the adjectives snobbed up and snobbed out .

Wow. This is truly one of the more versatile English verbs I’ve come across lately. And it’s not even in the dictionaries I’ve checked.#[1]

If you want the whole story with examples, read the Eggcorn Database entry.

[1]: NSOED has snob v. i., marked “obsolete”, as a variant of snub in the sense “sob”.

Hobbes or Corneille?

L’anglais n’a pas d’expression qui correspond au choix cornélien français (l’allemand non plus, d’ailleurs), mais il y en a une pour un choix entre quelque chose de peu satisfaisant et rien du tout : c’est un choix de Hobson, d’après un monsieur qui louait des chevaux en instistant que ses clients soit prennent le cheval le plus près de la porte, soit partent bredouille.

Certains anglophones ont ressenti un manque, une sorte de trou lexical, et se sont mis a appeller choix hobbésien les situations de choix où, par la nature même de l’alternative posée, on est toujours perdant.

Deux problèmes : la référence au philosophe Hobbes n’est pas claire, et phonétiquement, les deux sont trop proches pour que Hobson laisse une place à Hobbes.

Erreur ou innovation lexicale ? De toute façon, les accusations d’illettrisme fusent.

Mark Liberman’s Language Log entry on Hobbesian/Hobson’s choice reminds me of this recent thread on the ADS-L mailing list, which discussed the same topic: Arnold Zwicky presented a collection of examples which employ Hobbesian choice deliberately, to denote “a bad choice, between two unacceptable alternatives”. Hobbesian, though, is typically interpreted as an error, and accusations of illiteracy are thrown about.

The figure of speech to label bad choices is Hobson’s choice, which, as the Columbia Guide to Standard American English explains, means

no choice at all. Thomas Hobson (1544?–1631), a Cambridge livery stableman, rented his horses in the order of their closeness to the door; you took the next one in line or none at all.

The choice between something unsatisfactory and nothing at all, however, doesn’t really accommodate what users of Hobbesian choice want to express. Here is one of the examples from ADS-L, with Arnold Zwicky’s annotation:

In “Winning Cases, Losing Voters” (Op-Ed, Jan. 26), Paul Starr presents the Democratic Party with the Hobbesian choice of living by its convictions [AMZ: and losing votes] or compromising its principles in order to get more votes.

If neither Hobbes nor Hobson is available, it might be time to appeal to another author who, like Hobbes, is read world-wide: this is precisely the type of situation that modern-day French calls choix cornélien, a choice between alternatives that mutually obliterate each other. A Cornelian choice (or dilemma) is named after the playwright (and contemporary of Hobbes) Pierre Corneille (1606 - 1684).

To understand the concept we need to look at the Cid. Rodrigue loves Chimène. The problem: Rodrigue is on a quest to avenge his father’s honour, and the man he has set out to kill happens to be Chimène’s father. The “choice” offered to him is therefore one between honour and love, and by the very act of choosing one he pushes the other out of his reach: if he kills Chimène’s father, their budding relationship will be doomed; if he acts on his feelings, he loses his honour.

(There is a second level to the dilemma. The very situation that creates Rodrigue’s dilemma destroys his capacity to enjoy either choice. If he chooses honour and kills Chimène’s father, there will be a stain on his honour because it is dishonourable to kill a member of the family of one’s beloved; if he abandons his quest, Chimène might scorn him for being dishonourable. In its pure form, a Cornelian choice is truly impossible. But the play is a tragedy after all — real-life Cornelian choices stop at the first level of complexity, which usually is quite enough to make life unpleasant.)

It is interesting to observe how fixed expressions that express universal concepts are bound to culture-specific references.

As for what might have triggered the label Hobbesian (other than an erroneous substitution, a “citational eggcorn”, as Mark Liberman calls it), I’d speculate that the source might not be a particular passage from the work of Thomas Hobbes, but the underlying, if anachronistic dilemma of how to fit Hobbesian thought into a political world-view that is based on a belief in democracy as the form of government. To quote AHD4, Hobbes “argues that the only way to secure civil society is through universal submission to the absolute authority of a sovereign.” The choice between a wholesale rejection of Hobbes or of democracy may be a modern-day way of framing the issue. Still, in the political context of Leviathan — the English civil war — one of the salient issues was parliamentariarism: what was the king’s rule supposed to be based on? who should he share power with? what about the representation of the king’s subjects?

Back to language — Mark Liberman contends that Hobson’s and Hobbesian can’t coexist:

The key linguistic point is that Hobson’s blocks Hobbesian here. Even if there is a valid and coherent reason for Anderson to see his choice as a “Hobbesian choice”, he can’t use that phrase without taking literate readers aback, and leading some of them to make fun of him.

This is unfortunate. As for introducing a new figure altogether, I am unsure whether the reference to Corneille is familiar enough for educated English-speakers, and whether English, or any other language, is sufficiently open to such cultural imports.

Launching a new project of the calibre of the Eggcorn Database — modest as it is in the greater scheme of internet things, certainly increased my stress levels. Suddenly there are registered users and opinionated commenters (not to mention technical glitches). So I have been fighting feelings inadequacy and anxiety about potentially disappointing the learned contributors (I don’t think they read this blog, so I can freely say I’m scared stiff; yes, it’s silly, I know).

But Google has started picking up the site — search for “further adieu” or “deformation of character”, and we will come first, which is very satisfying. A search for “eggcorn” has us in third place, after Language Log (which deserves to come first). We got a very nice write-up there, just like same on Céline’s blog, Naked Translations, in English and French.

Which brings me to the second half of this post’s title. In an earlier post, Céline wonders about dull as ditchwater vs dull as dishwater. She actually got laughed at by some friends for using the former.#[1]

If one of the two variants is the original, and the other a spontaneous reinterpretation that has taken hold, we would have an excellent candidate for an eggcorn.

The reality is, it turns out, more complicated. Céline already indicated that usage and idiom dictionaries list dull as ditchwater (or ditch water), an only a few admit dishwater as an alternative. A good site to conduct this type of search is We find that the 1922 edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus lists only ditch water in its entry on dullness, but both under uncleanness.

In journalistic writing, we have a contrasted picture: the News search turns up 11 examples with dishwater, but none at all with ditchwater (whether in one or two words); the Guardian news archive, on the other hand, has more than twice the number of article hits for the more traditional term. We also find that the Guardian copy editors frown upon dishwater as this excerpt from a 1999 “Corrections and clarifications” column shows:

Near miss, from page 9, Media, October 11: “Both series demonstrated that you could show how scientists develop an argument… without making it as dull as dishwater.” Ditchwater (stagnant water in a ditch) is dull; dishwater (water in which the dishes have been washed) may describe soup, for example, that is thin and with very little taste.

Let’s see, since soup can’t be dull (idiomatically speaking), and soup can be like dishwater, something else can’t be dull as dishwater. Not really entirely convincing.

A search on Google for English pages doesn’t agree with the Guardian copy editors: 8,600 Ghits for “dull as dishwater” vs 2525 (995 + 1530) for “dull as ditchwater/ditch water”.

To further muddy the waters, whether in the sink or in the ditch, there is another possible source for the shift. Still on, we find the Columbia World of Quotations, which includes this one by Italo Calvino:

Novels as dull as dishwater, with the grease of random sentiments floating on top.

Expressive, and certainly belonging in the domestic rather than to the rural sphere.

This, however, is not the original quotation: Calvino wrote in Italian. I have traced it to the 1980 collection of essays Una pietra sopra. Discorsi di letteratura e società. The English title of the essay in question is The novel as spectacle, and it has appeared in several English collections of Calvino’s essays and lectures. I would very much like to know the original Italian version of this quotation — if anyone has it available, please leave a comment.

So what is going on here? A reinterpretation in casual writing has certainly taken place. Yet, dull as dishwater can never be considered as strictly speaking wrong. Everyone is free, after all, to choose whatever imagery for dullness they prefer.

For the time being, I hesitate to call ditchwater»dishwater an eggcorn in the strictest sense, even though it is a case of interesting semantic shift in an idiomatic expression. Maybe the Eggcorn Database needs a category for these as well.

But the story still doesn’t end here. Céline predicts that, given the advances of household technology, we will soon be seing dull as (a) dishwasher. I’m afraid, that’s already the case: a handful of Ghits for either of the two versions (with and without article). And most look genuine, or seriously confusing:

  • I got back from Scotland eariler today, it was dull as a dishwasher- and not one of them new fangled glow in the dark interweb magical dishwaters either. (link).
  • It is a sad story that the chief music critic of the New York Times must resort to such vulgarities as ‘Saint-Saens’s dull-as-dishwasher first act’ to spice up his article. (OPERA-l)

The eggcornologists are on the case.

Let us finally add that in French, as Céline reminds us, the canonical image for dullness and boredom is … rain (ditchwater-to-be, so to speak). Other colloquial expressions evoke death: ennueux à mourir (just like the German sterbenslangweilig), and the now-out-of-date youthspeak qualifier mortel (the meaning of which has shifted towards the expression of enthusiastic approval, ie it now means great).

[1]: Proof that I didn’t read her post carefully enough — the hilarity was abou dishwasher, as Céline clarifies in her comment.

Les suites du lancement du site consacré aux eggcorns. C’était assez éprouvant pour moi de faire face à mon sentiment de manque de compétence, étant donné que je me suis retrouvée du coup avec trois contributeurs hautement érudits et un grand nombre de commentateurs opinâtres (et ne parlons pas de pépins techniques).

Ce qui est plus agréable, c’est que le petit monde de la blogosphère linguistique anglophone a parlé de nous, et pas qu’eux : Céline, traductrice et bloggueuse sur Naked Translations, nous fait écho en français (tout en expliquant le concept de poteaux roses, ce qui me flatte énormement, bien évidemment.

De plus, elle pose une excellente question eggcornologique, à savoir si l’équivalent anglais de ennuyeux comme la pluie est bien dull as ditchwater (l’eau de fossé), comme elle l’avait appris, ou dull as dishwater (c-à-d l’eau de la vaisselle), comme le disent ses amies. Si l’une des deux expressions est la version originale, et l’autre née par réinterprétation spontanée, cela serait un excellent candidat pour notre collection.

Il se trouve que tout cela est un peu plus compliqué, et qu’au remplacement spontané de l’espression plus ancienne (ditchwater) par l’image plus récente s’ajoute une citation d’Italo Calvino : il dit en effet de certains romans qu’ils sont « ennuyeux comme l’eau de vaisselle sur laquelle flotte la graisse de sentiments aléatoires » (je traduis de l’anglais, traduit de l’italien…). Beau et terrible, tout cela. Maintenant il faudrait retrouver la VO — la citation provient d’un essai paru en 1980 dans un recueil intitulé Una pietra sopra. Discorsi di letteratura e società, et l’essai en question doit s’appeler approximativement « Le roman comme spectacle» (je ne connais que le titre anglais). Si quelqu’un a le texte original sous la main, veuillez laisser un commentaire !

Difficile, en somme, de se prononcer avec certitude sur cet étrange couple d’expressions idiomatiques. Car nous avons bien un cas de réanalyse sémantique, mais trop de facteurs qui ont pu l’engendrer. Il est également difficile d’appeler « erreur » strictu sensu une image appartenant au domaine de la langue figurée — on a bien le droit de comparer l’ennui a ce qu’on veut. Néanmoins, il va faloir que je réfléchisse à une categorie à rajouter à la Eggcorn Database qui permettrait d’y integrer ce type de tranposition.

L’histoire a encore une codicille  Céline prédit, en effet, la génèse de dull dull as (a) dishwasher (ennuyeux comme un lave-vaisselle). Ben, c’est déjà fait, comme nous l’apprend Google. Les eggcornologistes sont sur le cas.

(La version anglaise de ce billet est plus complète.)

  • 2004-07-24
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