Nibs nabbed.

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.


25 comments on this post.
  1. Margaret:

    why, then, is “his nibs” or “nobs” a term used in Criggage for turning up a jack or for playing a jack of suit.

  2. kenneth raine:

    Not convinced by that. Just on ” usage implication”, seems to be akind of irreverent comment to an assumed status. I. E. his lordship. May be an abbreviation of a title,trouble is I cant think what.

  3. John:

    I always knew the head master was a knob! Great detection of his nibs.

  4. Penny:

    My Grandad (a South Londoner) used the term ‘the nibs’ to refer to his 3 children, as a term of endearment.

  5. George Fergus:

    Nib means the narrow tip of a pen, so I think the expression may have originated as a way of calling your boss the equivalent of a “pinhead”. Instead of saying “his lordship”, you would say “his nibship”, which was eventually shortened to “his nibs”.

  6. Lynn:

    His nibs brought me to The Word Detective. Bravo!

  7. Angie:

    Funny, I learned the cribbage term for that as “knock”. Regional differences? I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts.

  8. Ian:

    possibly also a link with Hindi nabob a wealthy man (especially one who made his fortune in the Orient)

  9. Anon:

    In an episode of the 1980s series, Juliet Bravo, Inspector Darblay’s husband refers to his wife as the nibs. Reading around the comments, I imagine it was an affectionate reference to his wife (who has a high-ranking position).

    At school (80s-90s, West Midlands region) Knob tended to be used for d**k, so a knob-head would mean a d**k-head. So if knob originally meant head, it was interpreted as meaning a particularly type of head (of a man’s anatomy!!!) It possibly subverted an historic meaning in that rather than being an important person, it was used against someone who either thought they were important, or else someone who was a complete fool.

    Penny mentioned ‘the nibs’ as referring affectionately to grandchildren by her S.London G’dad. In the West Mids, ‘nipper’ is used to refer to kids. I don’t suppose it has a connection to ‘nibbs’, though. Perhaps it’s because kids are nippy (quick)as they buzz about.

  10. Jan:

    My father born in 1908 used to call my brother ‘his nibs’ and that was usually with a smile on his face so defiantly a term of affection .

  11. Kay:

    I am 84 and have heard “his nibs” used in my family all my life. It was a term of endearment and/or frustration for a male loved one, husband, son, or at times a family friend or physician who over-stepped his bounds.

  12. Ray Busler:

    Bernard Cornwell, in one of his “Sharps Rifles” books attributed the origin of the term to subordinates of the Duke of Wellington.

  13. Skullbleu:

    “nob” is short/slang for nobility.

  14. Mark:

    This is the most enjoyable and funny Word Exploration I have witnessed in quite some time.. many thanks from HIS NIBS. By the way I encountered the phrase watching an old episode of Cheers where Carla used it.

  15. Mark:

    Wait a minute 17th century “CANT?” NOW I’VE GOT TO LOOK THAT UP! ?

  16. Joe Fahner:

    Many years ago the single paneled cartoon that ran in the daily paper ” Our boarding house with Major Hoople” the main character was sometimes referred to by this term by the other denizens. I’m also reminded of the singer back in the fifties who had a self entitled album, ” Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs”

  17. Mrs. Ashley Matchett, East Grinstead:

    I’ve heard of an employer being referred to as “Hus Nibs”, however, in East Grinstead, West Sussex towards the end of the 19th Century, there were quill pen makers by the name of Palmer, followed by Thomas Cramp who were employers, producing ‘nibs’. So maybe their occupation gave a more respectable meaning to the expression “His Nibs”.

  18. Peter Talbot:

    18th century slang for nob, nib, nub included the male organ. It was almost always used sarcastically to describe a person full of self importance. I recall seeing it in personal correspondence as an insulting term for a gamekeeper at Malahide in Dublin, but can’t put my hands on the offending paper.

  19. Angela White:

    I disagree with the association of nib with ‘pinhead’ as this is not a common term in the UK where the expression ‘his nibs’ originated.

  20. Angela White:

    The link between ‘his nibs’ and ‘nabob’ has already been dismissed as there is a closer link between ‘nab’, ‘nob’ and ‘nibs’ as slang/cant words for head or superior.

  21. Angela White:

    Nob is not a shortened form of nobility. It is a slang/cant term for head.

  22. Chris Lorenz:

    My mother used the term quite frequently just as described by Mr. Talbot above: “It was almost always used sarcastically to describe a person full of self importance.”

  23. Bruce the Aussie:

    One for His Nibs!
    I played cribbage in 1960 e.v., in Coventry, U.K., with my south-London, working-class, ex-Royal Marine, grandfather.
    We played with cards, dice, and dominoes. The trick is to score exactly 31. You score one point for playing the last card that is less or equal to 31. Whenever he did that my grandfather would exclaim, “And one for his Nibs!” I got the feeling that his Nibs is a Knob who thinks he is a prince, usually a prince of business, perhaps a factory owner, or even even agaffer with airs and graces. When asked who His Nibs is, grandad would show me the Jack of (?) Hearts.
    Playing cribbage years later after my family emigrated to Australia, we played with the rule “one for His Nob”.
    I hope you find this anecdote interesting. It is one of my very early, treasured, memories.

  24. Bruce the Aussie:

    Sounds like a perfect Knob!

  25. Yvonne Ritson:

    My Dad ( who would be 97 if alive) used the expression too. I was thinking of ‘Noble in Birth’ as an origin for “His Nibs”. Just because someone was born well does not mean they are intelligent or well-meaning, therefore a mockery of their position. Respect must be earned.

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