What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hob-nob'?
The term hob-nob is now used to mean 'mix socially, especially with those rich or famous'.
In earlier times 'hob-nob' has been used with a variety of meanings:
- Drink together; be on familiar terms.
- Drink to someone's health.
- Hit or miss/give or take.
As well as those various meanings the expression has had various spellings - 'hob or nob', 'hob-a-nob', 'hob and nob', This list doesn't include 'hob-knob' though which, although increasingly found online, is a misspelling.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Hob-nob'?
A Google search for 'hob-nob' will bring up, at least for me here in the UK, pages of results about the oat biscuits launched by the British snack food manufacturer McVitie's in 1985.
No doubt the company's marketing department picked up on the 'sit down for a cup of tea and a hob-nob' [tea and a chat] habit of the British.
That's enough about biscuits. Let's look at those various meanings of 'hob-mob' and where they came from.
The 'hit or miss'/'give or take' meaning came first and this is found in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:
His incensement... is so implacable, that satisfaction can be none, but by pangs of death and sepulcher: Hob, nob, is his word: giv't or take't [give or or take it].
Sir Toby Belch, intending to alarm Viola, says that Sir Andrew wanted to duel and that his word was 'hob, nob', that is to say, 'unpredictable'. The 'hob, nob' that Shakespeare chose to use was an alteration of 'hab nab', an earlier phrase that meant 'hit or miss'/'one way or another'. This is similar in meaning to another reduplication - willy-nilly.
The progression in meaning from 'one way or the other' to 'drinking/toasting with friends' came about by virtue of the drinking habits of 17th century England. It was the custom to drink 'rounds', which, if you haven't come across the term before, means 'sets of drinks bought for all the members of a group, typically as one of a sequence bought by different members of the group'. This is first found in 1670, in D'avenant and Dryden's The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island:
This is prize-Brandy... Let's have two rounds more.
'Drinking hobnob' was the term used for that 'this way and that' type of drinking and came to be used for any drinking done among friends.
The 'drink to someone's health' and 'drink together' meanings came not long after this - in 1761 in a book entitled The Masque - a collection of English, Scotch, and Irish songs. It included:
A complete collection of the various Toasts, Sentiments, and Hob-Nobs.
...and in this piece from the English magazine Jackson's Oxford Journal, March 1763:
Do I go to hob or nob in white-wine, I am probably told red, is better for my nerves.
Why 'hob-nobbing' has come to mean 'socialising with one's social betters' isn't clear. That may be because 'drinking hob-nob' was favoured by those wealthy enough to pay for drinks for the entire company.
See other reduplicated phrases.