Dear WD: My father is curious about where the term “his nibs” came from. He has often said “his nibs” when referring to a friend or one of my brothers. I told him about your column and promised to write. I hope you can help. — Sandra Sheldon, Pittsburgh, PA.
Tell your father that he’s lucky I have a persistent streak. The Oxford English Dictionary, usually the definitive word on origins, defines “his nibs” as “an employer, a superior; a self-important person.” But as to the genesis of the phrase, the OED closed the door politely but firmly with the comment “origin obscure.” Undeterred, I decided to forge on in my quest — after all, some of my best friends have obscure origins.
Another hour or two among my trusty and dusty reference books produced not just the origin of “his nibs,” but interesting connections to several other words as well. “His nibs” was a common slang phrase among English college students in the 19th century, usually a sarcastic reference to someone seen as aloof or stuck-up. Along with an earlier form “nabs,” “nibs” was based on “nob,” an alternate spelling of “knob” and an 18th century slang term for “head.” The “head” in question was both literally the human head and “head man,” or an important person.
“Nab” was also a slang term for “hat,” and the verb “to nab” may be related to the same root, in the sense of “capturing the head” of someone. Some of the uncertainty about “nibs” and its relatives is due to their being filtered through 17th century thieves’ cant, where meanings were often deliberately obscured to confuse the police.