Long before you and I were around, society in many parts of the world and certainly in the island on which I have my being was run on what were called 'feudal lines'. A feudal society is where everyone works for the people above them and in return they get some sort of wage or a piece of land.
In Britain it all started with Bill, also known as William the Conqueror who was the last person to invade Britain in 1066. He was also the Duke of Normandy and set about organising the Britons into the type of society he had known in Normandy, France. How it works is this: the king is the boss at the top of the tree, then come the barons and the knights and finally at the bottom were those who were poor and did all the work. They were known as 'villains'. Nothing changes really, does it? Nowadays we use 'feudal' to describe something that's very strict and formal and 'villain' is a word used to describe a criminal. In such a rigid community everyone knew their place. You started life in that particular section of society and in most cases you died in it.
Today you would be hard pressed to find an organisation which is run on feudal lines. Possibly the nearest you can find is a military one where everyone has a rank and knows exactly what the boundaries of those ranks are. I must admit I fell foul of the rules (broke the rules) and furthermore upset the applecart (did things the wrong way) when I was called up for National Service and had to enlist in the army. Let me explain. As I lived near London at the time I was posted to the Tower of London, a foreboding, grim and grey building that I wouldn't recommend to anyone if you wanted comfortable accommodation. One weekend I was not allowed any leave because the previous week I had been late back from an exceptional 72 hour pass. And not being on time is a serious misdemeanour (crime) in the army. As a result that weekend there were only two people in the Tower of London – that is in the army part – me and the adjutant (captain).
As he was an officer and I was a humble private, each time we met and as you can imagine we met loads of times, I had to salute him. Well, after about the tenth time, I thought that as we were so to speak old buddies by then, I would just nod my head and smile. But he didn't like that one little bit and went purple with rage. Of course he couldn't do anything about it because there was no sergeant or corporal around to charge (prosecute) me. I often wonder whether the poor chap ever got over it. Needless to say, I stayed in my barrack room for the rest of that weekend. The point I am making is that society in general isn't now at all feudal, at least officially that is. There are those however who perhaps wish it was and they relish the idea of being superior to others in their daily life. These people we call 'snobs'.
Snob is an unusual word because somehow it's managed to turn itself inside out. It started life in the 18th century as a corruption of the Latin expression 'sine nobilitate'. If you translate this, it means 'without nobility' suggesting that this person doesn't have a title like Lord Smith or the Duke of Nowhere. Students at university who were humble and didn't have titles were thus called 'snobs'. Now by means of some strange linguistic process we use the word today to suggest someone who looks down on people they consider inferior and tries to copy those they consider superior. A complete turnaround! Snobs don't like talking to 'ordinary' people. They speak in a certain affected way. Let me give you an example. As a student I once got a holiday job in a very expensive hotel as a waiter during the Christmas holiday.
There was one very 'superior' guest who didn't really like talking to me at all because remember I was just a waiter but on one occasion he had to answer my question, which was: Is your surname Caruthers? And it was and so I enquired why he kept handing back Christmas cards sent to the hotel bearing this name. It turned out that since the previous Christmas his rank (he was in the army) had risen from major to colonel and he didn't want to accept cards addressed to 'Major Caruthers' as he was now 'Colonel Caruthers'. Would you believe it? He was a classic example of a snob.
Some forty years ago a certain Professor of Linguistics published an essay on what he referred to as 'U' and 'non-U' English. The first refers to 'Upper Class' and the second 'not of the Upper Class'. Words and expressions were divided into the two categories. Let me give you some 'U' examples with the 'non-U' in brackets:
I'm just going to have my bath (I'm just going to take a bath)
salt pepper and mustard (condiments)
And so it goes on and so the language changes. What was frowned upon (disapproved of) 20 years ago, is now approved of. Accents are another bone of contention (matter for argument). The way you speak sometimes affects the way people treat you. People still talk about the Oxford accent but that really just applied to the 1920s and 1930s because only a certain type of student went to the university. A BBC accent is another one, which also stems from that period in history. Nowadays of course we are all equal, or are we? Remember the famous line from George Orwell's 'Animal farm' – All animals are equal but some are more equal than others? Snobs of course flourish all over the world. The question I leave with you is this: Hand on heart – are you a snob?
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