Snobbery is something that has never gone away, but has been safely confined, in the popular imagination, to attitudes that hardly exist any more. It is so obviously unacceptable that the mere accusation of snobbery is enough to place the target beyond the pale. The accusation that someone looks down on any of our fellow human beings is made, and no convincing response is possible.

The meaning of the word “snob” has, however, significantly changed since it first became current. In the turmoil of early Victorian society, a snob was less a person who looked down on his social inferiors, than one who aped the manners and tastes of his social superiors. In Thackeray’s superb The Book of Snobs, for instance, we see a portrayal of individuals in a magnificent period of social mobility, wanting to live beyond their means, showing off, faking the manners of the grand. Sneering at the less ambitious was, at best, an incidental part of the project.

That project, in fact, has never gone away, and snob, in Thackeray’s sense, is as obvious a feature of society now as it ever has been. The sneer coating the aspiration is, however, much more obvious than the dynamic drive of self-betterment. When a keyboard warrior on Twitter tells someone to “educate yourself”, what are they doing but looking down on his views? When they go on to say that this conversation is now over, they are suggesting that even to talk to someone of these views is infra dig. When someone at the cutting edge of fashion, design or art dismisses a less dedicated, though often richer entrant with a Balenciaga bag or a Damien Hirst spot painting as “basic”, they have stuck their nose firmly in the air.

But within these sneers is something like cultural dynamism. In Flaubert’s last novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, he describes with an awe-inspiring degree of superciliousness the attempts of two retired petits-bourgeois to find out about the world. The novel includes a Dictionnaire des idées reçues, a list of automatic beliefs and phrases in late nineteenth century France, trotted out by large numbers of idiots. (“Anglais: tous riches… Constipation: Tous les gens de lettres sont constipés.”) Lovingly put together over years, the Dictionnaire is undoubtedly a work of considerable snobbery. But that snobbery is surely effective in laughing at stupidity and asking people to think for themselves.

Might snobbery in cultural taste have something of the same dynamic quality, encouraging people to put vulgar mass enthusiasm to one side, to exercise a little personal judgement? And might an audience driven to seek out the individual enthusiasm be an effective driver of creative or intellectual endeavour?

Snobbery is surely effective in laughing at stupidity and asking people to think for themselves

The socialite and wit Nicky Haslam has, for some years, issued an annual list of things and, brutally, people, he now regards as “common”. When it started up, it was genuinely quite a shocking thing to say. Not least, because in the complicated game of class commentary, it has long been regarded (silently) as extraordinarily common to use the word “common” at all, or anything similar – a character in Anthony Powell tells his girlfriend off for using the word “posh”. Haslam’s lists are exceedingly funny, sometimes wilfully baffling. If everyone agreed about what was common, then of course that belief would itself become frightfully common.  In the past, hydrangeas and “Aperol anything” have been declared to be common. But if everyone agreed, then would it not become extremely common to look down on hydrangeas? Are “common” and its opposite quantum states which dissolve once gazed upon? In the 1980s we all anxiously learnt not to say “pardon”, “settee” and “toilet”, only to discover that there is nothing more common than a boy from a Northern comprehensive studiously saying “what”, “sofa” and “lavatory”.

The point of Haslam’s lists is not only to make one recognise some things as awful (the words “more-ish” and “bucket lists”) but also to make one think, with other inclusions, that one just doesn’t get it and must therefore be extremely common oneself (carrying your house keys everywhere, visiting an arboretum). Tastes change; things revolve; habits advance. Good taste is not a fortress, but something on which snobbish judgement may fall at any moment. To take another horticultural example, Christopher Lloyd, the great gardener, obviously felt that it was rather common to avoid blaring, loud, floral colours. Painful good taste, like a hobby gardener emulating Sissinghurst’s all-white garden, can be much more vulgar than a gardener who relishes an orange geranium next to a purple cistus.

Once a large number of people agree on something, it starts to look common. In the mid 2010s, the wartime poster Keep Calm and Carry On was amusing and charming. Within about five years, it had become appallingly common, and has now been ditched. Much the same process has happened to the cocktails of recent years. There is now nothing more provincial than a post-work table of Aperol Spritzes or negroni sbagliati. This is such an area of dynamic movement that fashion itself becomes common. Last year so many chic people told me they had fallen in love with the Aviation cocktail that I started wondering whether that, too, had somehow become common. Would it not be less common just to drink something you actually liked, or something literally nobody drinks? An aquavit sour?

As for language and idioms, we could be here all day specifying usages Flaubert might have picked on. “Curate” would be a good place to start, unless actually about a museum, and “journey”, unless from one place to another. In my own field of writing and words, we often pretend we are making artistic judgements when, in fact, we are just driven by a sense that a form of words or a particular stylistic judgement is now rather common. Personally, I think there is nothing more common and vulgar than a historical novel written in the present tense. (“Marie Antoinette glides forward. Robespierre’s hand rustles her crusty taffeta ballgown. ‘Mon amour,’ he murmurs.”) Travel articles in the present tense are in the process of being phased out (“The market is wonderfully full of apples, pears, bananas. I buy a plum from a stall holder. It tastes wonderful.”) Might literary fiction take a similar step, out of sheer embarrassment?

Grammar, too, can be common, though this is slightly complicated. There is actually a grammarians’ term for a linguistic mistake produced through a snobbish wish to sound elevated. The classic case is to use “I” where “me” is called for – “A kind friend has invited my wife and I to dinner”. Linguists have proposed calling this a “snobbative”. But educated people who object to incorrect usage may also be described as “snobs” – the other day, the Guardian covered a piece about a council who proposed to drop all possessive apostrophes from street signs. Although the newspaper is still written in correct English grammar, mostly, the piece described sceptical residents as “apostrophe fans” in a highly disapproving way.

When we come to snobbery about ideas, we have to concede the effectiveness of the strategy. Patient, reasoned counter-argument based on facts takes a great deal of time to persuade, and may never do so at all. Some intellectual positions, however, are not to be demolished by the mere statement of truth. It might be more effective to use the tactics of snobbery. To my mind, all conspiracy theories are staggeringly common. The belief that the moon landings were faked; that gender theorists are funded by right-wing organisations; that vaccinations are designed to induce long covid or autism; all such beliefs are, obviously, as vulgar as a hen party in Swindon. Could the upturned nose and the sniff of contempt work where actual evidence has failed?

In short, we ought not to underestimate the power of snobbery to drive innovation and a startling pace of cultural change. Snobbery in our world is, above all, a dynamic force, not much like systems of caste in India or Louis XIV’s court. It thrives on the constant change of category, on the struggle to rise, on the establishment of new forms of prestige. Nor should we pretend that these struggle for prestige are fading away or mean nothing to the young. You can call anyone “dude” on an American university campus, but call the star college quarterback “bro” without permission, and the distinctions of social class will pretty quickly make themselves apparent.

One ought to place oneself in these hierarchies. I’m probably not an appropriate person to opine, compared to the undisputed authority of Mr Haslam – I could hardly be more common, a sprig of the lower middle classes from an industrial Northern city. I went to a comprehensive school and now live in urban South London. On the other hand, “common” may be about the idée reçue and the notion of “basic”. From that point of view, where “common” is not about how many duchesses you know, but whether you are happy to live with the ideas and habits dictated by the cultural processes of capitalism – well, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be as well equipped as anyone else to declare Instagram, contact lenses or the Greek island of Santorini as common as muck.

Common

  • Doctors
  • Pasta, unless followed by a secondo piatto
  • Netflix
  • Being non-binary
  • Glyndebourne
  • Buying meat from supermarkets
  • Dignifying mongrels with portmanteau terms – “my cavapoo-bicheramer whippet cross.”
  • Audiobooks
  • Moving to Berlin
  • Art Deco
  • Water features
  • Tate
  • The novels of Nancy Mitford

Not common

  • Architects
  • Risotto
  • Amazon Prime
  • Being lesbian
  • Bayreuth
  • Buying vegetables from supermarkets
  • Schnauzers
  • Reading
  • Moving to Vienna
  • Brutalism
  • Weeding
  • The Wallace Collection
  • The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett

Philip Hensher’s most recent novel is “To Battersea Park” (4th Estate)

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