I have reached the point in life, it seems, where hobnobbing is de rigueur. Aina and I were at another wine-and-nosh thing this evening at the Bata Shoe Museum, engaging in the willy-nilly give-and-take of politely bibulous conversation fuelled by canapés. It’s always a little bit of a raised-eyebrow thing, hobnobbing; it’s not the scuttlebutt you get with hoi polloi around the knob of a hot hob, it’s more of a respectable rhubarb, a bit of hemming and hawing and nobly nodding, not with the rabble but with the nobs. “Hobnob” is the sound echoing the halls of the local Olympus as the almost-somebodies enjoy being almost somebody.
But is it schmoozing? Oo. There’s maybe something a bit oozy about schmoozing. It’s the same kind of general polite conversation, but somehow there seems to be an oleaginous overtone to it, perhaps an avaricious intent. You can schmooze lightly with people, yes, but you can also schmooze someone into something or schmooze something out of someone. The ooze is unavoidable, but the schm also gives it a certain ludicrousness, thanks to other schm words – schmuck, schmendrick – and the dismissive reduplication: “Writer schmiter. He scribbles a bit.”
And where do all those schm come from? Yiddish. Schmooze is from Yiddish schmues ‘chat, gossip’, from Hebrew shemuah ‘rumour’. And here’s the thing. Less than a century ago, the nobs who hobnobbed were the rich WASPy sorts, and the people who schmoozed were not even permitted into establishments where one might hobnob. If you schmoozed you were Jewish, burdened with all the stereotypes that came with it. And still to some extent hang onto it. Which is a prime reason, I think, why schmooze has a different tone than hobnob. Entrenched prejudice.
Hobnob, by the way, comes from a phrasal adverb, hob and nob, referring to give-and-take and also meaning just ‘however it may turn out’ – because it’s from hab and nab, which is from have and ne have, with the old ne meaning ‘not’. Like willy-nilly from will ye, nill ye. To have and have not. To give and take.
Or to pretend there’s a give and take. Just passing the same goods back and forth above the heads of the have-nots. To take from those who give, and pretend that you’re the giver and they’re the takers. Look, I have a certain station in life! Oh, I shall bestow some largesse on you. Or maybe just some large s—.
Well, I’m being a bit overdramatic. Most of the people at the Bata this evening were associated with a local university, and most were not exceedingly well off, just comfortable enough to give a little money to the program. Nice people whose main priorities in life are something other than getting as much money as possible. We happily checked our coats and went in and had wine and nosh. I’m not sure we checked our privilege, though.
But we did schmooze.