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Airs and graces

Ask a snob to dance the can-can and he/she will probably consider it an affront to their self-appointed dignity. And a suggestion that snooty pretentiousness and frothy French leg shows are linguistically related will only add to their mortification.

But pretensions apart, the fact remains: snob and can-can do share common roots, along with crony, chum, wrangler and wooden spoon.

All are derived from university slang, originating mostly at Oxford and Cambridge which tend to generate their own lingua franca for a variety of objects and practices.

Snob comes from the abbreviation “s. nob” for the Latin “sine nobilitate,” literally “without nobility” and used at one time to describe students in that inferior social category.

The airs and graces which they assumed to mask their lesser status gave rise to the currently accepted usage of snob. Conversely and by extension, it is not unlikely that or similar reasons those of noble birth became known as “nobs”

What is indisputable is that undergraduates of noble origin were entitled to wear gold tassels on their mortar boards. These tassels were known as tufts, giving rise to the term “tuft hunters” as a description of those with pretensions to be counted among the aristocracy.

The corrupted form “toff” derives from the same source. Chum and crony are virtually synonymous, but the first comes from Oxford and the other from Cambridge.

Chum is shortened derivation of “chamber fellow” or roommate, while crony stems from “chronos”- the Greek word for time. Friends who were at the university at the same time were therefore “cronies”.

Wrangler derives from the arguing skills which were once necessary to gain a degree in mathematics. Those who gained first class honours became known as wranglers and their names appeared at the top of the results list.

At the very bottom came the name of the student who barely qualified for a degree. For some obscure reasons he received a spoon made from wood as a kind of booby prize. And those who came last in any contest are still said to win the “wooden spoon”.

French students were given to arguing in other than academic places. The Latin “quamquam” (although) was a favourite introduction to a dispute, but was so overworked that it came to be applied to any piece of entertaining nonsense.

In time it was used to describe the lively dance performed in favourite student haunts, but to disguise its academic origins the word “quamquam” was transformed into “can-can”.

Better that than the cant of a snob.

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