Words: Snub

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The Independent Online
BY FAILING to greet Prince Charles in Buenos Aires last week, the Provincial Governor, Mr Eduardo Duhalde, administered what was plainly a snub. I learnt about this affair from my Daily Telegraph; its reporter on the spot, Robert Hardman, didn't actually use the word when writing about the incident, preferring to call it a boycott, but he did use it later in his story, saying that "there were rumours of a further snub" when the President's daughter didn't make the polo match arranged for the Prince at the fashionable Hurlingham Polo Club. But had she snubbed him or hadn't she? Well, she was on the guest-list, but "Argentine officials insisted that she had never been due to attend".

These are delicate matters. But the art of snubbing has changed a bit. Nowadays, if we are to believe our newspapers, it is most commonly practised by the simple ploy of non-attendance, when it is divided into two categories, snubs and deliberate snubs. For the genuine snub you have to do it on purpose.

According to Chris Patten, the real masters of the thoroughly civilised snub are the Chinese. He recalls in his recent memoirs how the international press corps would debate among themselves whether a true snub had been committed if, say, on one of his visits to Peking, the Governor happened to have been met by a lower-powered official, or in a lower-powered car, than might have been expected.

As I say, it can be quite a knife-edge. What interests me more, though, is how all these nuances can be encompassed in such a barbarous little monosyllable as snub. This is a Scandinavian word whose verb in Old Norse meant to cut short. (Snubba, I discover, is a Swedish dialect word for a short-horned cow.) A snub-nosed person, obviously, has a nose which seems to have been cut off.

So to snub someone was to cut them down to size, or to silence them, perhaps with a cutting remark. But the word was once sometimes used in quite a matter-of-fact way, with nothing particularly insulting about it. Bunyan writes about God "snubbing" people's lusts. You could snub, say, the branch of a tree. In our own century a snubber is, or rather was before hydraulics took over, a primitive shock-absorber in cars, in the form of a sort of rubber pad which stopped springs flattening too much over a bump.

Newspaper journalists, naturally, adore the word, and are always on the lookout for a chance to use it - partly because it can be accommodated in the largest headlines, along with such words as ban, slash, hit, probe, curb, and slam, which came into vogue as headline words before being incorporated into the working vocabulary of the professional hack.

The other nice thing about it is that it cocks a snook at diplomatic pomposity. Back in the 1930s its plural was a favourite taunt among prep school pupils: a well-aimed "So snubs!" was a useful pay-off line, guaranteed to fox an opponent. Today it's refreshing to be able to bring it in among all those emollient international polysyllables like concordat and rapprochement and normalisation. It must be the schoolboy in us.