Rubbing Elbows with Hobnobbers

After hearing Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Puttin’ On The Ritz on last week’s So You Think You Can Dance (a Summer guilty pleasure and a better-produced dancing reality competition than Dancing With The Stars), I tweeted about the song this morning.

Here’s a live snippet of Rufus’ interpretation of the tune in case you can’t get to the version:

For those of us who grew up in the eighties, we probably all remember the synth-influenced version by Taco. Or maybe you recall Gene Wilder & Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. Fewer still would have caught Fred Astaire’s performance in Blue Skies.

No matter where you’ve seen it or heard it (or tried to sing yourself, all misheard lyrics and bad syncopation [it can’t just be me]), you’ll never forget it.

In my most recent listening, the phrases “rubbing elbows” and “hobnobbing” popped into my head and couldn’t be dislodged.

Which is all a very long intro to the following blog post.

To “rub elbows with” seems to carry the kind of well-to-do, upper-crust society, urbane connotation I was envisioning:

There’s nothing like rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, or At the reception diplomats were rubbing shoulders with heads of state. Both of these terms allude to being in close contact with someone. [Mid-1800s]

Another source thinks the idiom is a little less haughty/aristocratic:

Fig. to associate with someone; to work closely with someone. (No physical contact is involved.)

So we’ve got some conflicting reports there, but it seems like the use I’m thinking of did in fact originate from the kind of close quarters party-style mingling one might do at a fancy soiree. It’s possible that there are now less hoity-toity uses for the phrase, but I think most folks (like me) hear a certain air and arrogance to the phrase.

I could be wrong; let me know.

Which brings us to hobnob (and/or hobknob, which I assumes was the correct spelling).

The always enlightening Urban Dictionary cuts right to the chase:

Hob-knobbing is how socialites spend their days.

Please note the spelling as well.

Other sources:

Etymology: from the obsolete phrase drink hobnob to drink alternately to one another
Date: 1813

1 archaic : to drink sociably
2: to associate familiarly


–verb (used without object)
1. to associate on very friendly terms (usually fol. by with): She often hobnobs with royalty.
2. Archaic. to drink together.
3. a friendly, informal chat.
1595–1605; from the phrase hab or nab lit., have or have not, OE habban to have + nabban not to have (ne not + habban to have)

Hobnobbing, it seems use to have something to do with drinking/toasting and may “have” to do with “haves” and “have nots”.

Although it sounds more posh, hobnobbing might have started out as the less “loaded” phrase, but now carries more of the connotation that both words certainly share.

In the end, I think the song – whatever form or remake or cover – it takes is far better than my wordy middling.

I still think those folks on Park Avenue who were Puttin’ on the Ritz were likely both hobnobbing and rubbing elbows, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Until next time.

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