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shameless pleading






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.


40 comments to Nibs

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • John

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

  • Penny

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

  • 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”.

  • Lynn

    His nibs brought me to The Word Detective. Bravo!

  • Angie

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

  • Ian

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

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • Sue Millward

      Yes, I agree with all you said. His nibs was most definitely a derogative term meaning someone who thought too much of himself. I don’t think there is any connection between nibs and nippers, but, obviously, I could be wrong.

  • 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 .

  • 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.

  • Ray Busler

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

  • Skullbleu

    “nob” is short/slang for nobility.

    • Angela White

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

    • Sue Millward

      We aren’t talking about nob, but nib….!!

    • Tony Harvey

      I think there may well be something in what you say. Cribbage Corner website confirms my personal experience of cribbage:
      “In cribbage, nobs is the name given to the Jack of the turn-up suit. That is, if the turn-up card is a four of Diamonds, then the player holding the Jack of Diamonds scores an extra point in her hand, known as “one for nobs” (sometimes “knobs”) or “one for his nob” (or sometimes “his nibs”). This is a very old term, which probably dates back to the origins of cribbage.” In British English, ‘the nobs’ is a common reference ?— outside cribbage ?— to noblemen, i.e. members of the nobility; the upper classes; the aristocracy.

  • 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.

  • Mark

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

  • 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”

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Karin DT

    I’ve enjoyed reading about ‘nibs’, but have been asked for the origin of the word cocoa ‘nibs’… the small broken pieces of a cocoa bean. Does ‘nibs’ = pieces?

  • Sue Millward

    Oh well, I know a bit about this, as I used to work in the nuts industry and nibs are sharpened pieces – totally different meaning. I think they are slightly sharpened pieces, but stand to be corrected.

  • Marc pipeson

    I also came here to find out why they’re called cocoa/cacao nibs. As an aside, when I was a kid, nibs were marbles, as in the playground variety, rather than the Elgin type. Was that just in the northwest of England?

  • Iain Brew

    Is it possible that the origin lies with the early clockmaker Knibbs? A Knibbs clock would have aristocratic associations and the name is somewhat onomatopoeic…

  • Frederick Seaborne

    In “Cow Country”, cowboy-author Will James relates about how the naive-and-clueless-about-cattle-herding Duke Montgomery — having purchased the herds and land that Will and his fellow cowboys were managing — had come out to attempt to run the outfit, with predictably hilarious and/or disastrous results. Will’s good-natured but no-nonsense supervisor and one or two other senior cowboys sarcastically refer to His Lordship as “His Nibbs” throughout the story; eventually, however, the Duke comes to his senses and humbly admits how inept and uninformed his clumsily-administered leadership had been, and appoints Will’s supervisor to be the general manager of the ranch.

  • Bronwen

    I came here after hearing Cary Grant say ‘his nibs’ in the movie Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946). The way it is used in the dialogue seems to mean a self important man. He was referring to Ingrid Bergman’s husband (Claude Rains) who was a nazi sympathizer. BTW – one of the Best Movies Ever.

  • Ruth Irene Lowry

    I always thought that “his nibs” was a way of referring to oneself in the third person because that is how my father used it. For example, he would write “his nibs” on a photo of himself to identify it. After reading this explanation and the comments, I realize that he was being self-deprecating in a humorous way. He always was a joker. My father was born in 1911 in Toronto to parents whose parents had come from York, England.

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