Knob - knub - nob - nub

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The four words knob, knub, nob and nub can all be defended as being legitimate parts of English vocabulary and etymology, but they have undoubtedly been confused in the past, as can be shown by OED's frequent use in its etymologies for the various forms of such phrases as "perhaps a variant of ..." and "probably originally a variant of ... n." (AWE's underlining). (There is also confusion recorded with nab, neb, [k]nop or [k]nap.) OED lists four nouns under nob (without a 'k-') and two verbs, and only one of each with a 'k-'; one noun and one verb have the vowel '-u-' and an initial 'k-', while there are two nouns and three verbs listed with no 'k-' and a '-u-'. Most of these meanings can be ignored by most students, as they are obsolete or regional - or both. Some are slang, and should be avoided in academic writing. AWE's advice - should you be concerned about spelling - is

In academic writing, do not use the spellings knub or nob - 
unless you are talking about slang, or linguistic matters
  • Nob can be
    • 'a knot in a thread', or one of the imperfections (fluff and so on) that accrue and irritate those who are sewing. This is an obsolete word: one may assume it was more useful in the days of hand-spun fibres.
    • 'the human head'. This is a slang term, "probably originally a variant of knob n.". It was also used in boxing slang to mean 'to hit on the head', and in the card game of Cribbage, where it means a jack of the same suit as the card turned up by the dealer, scoring one to its holder who claims "one for his nob [or nobs or nibs]".
    • 'a posh person', or more formally 'someone with more money or other forms of social prestige [than the speaker]'. OED says that this meaning of the word is an abbreviation of 'noble' or 'nobleman', but suggests that this doesn't explain the earlier forms, Scots before 1719 nabb, and northern Irish from the nineteenth century knab[b][e], adding that later English use may have been influenced by the imperial nabob.
      • OED's fourth noun 'nob' illustrates the confusion between knob with a '-k-' and nob, without: it is a slang contraction of knobstick (see below) in its slang sense of 'blackleg', 'strikebreaker'.
    • The second verb 'to nob' (the first being 'hit on the head') is slang from buskers and other street performers, 'to solicit donations after a performance ['nobbins' being roughly 'takings']'. Its origin is uncertain.
There is also a proper noun Nob, the name of a place north of Jerusalem where King David took refuge from King Saul. (See Isaiah 10: 32 and 1 Samuel 22: 6-23).
  • The spelling knob has the root meaning of 'a lump, more or less rounded, and small in its context'. It is a common Germanic word, appearing for example in medieval and modern German and Flemish as knobbe, and in Swedish as knapp and Danish as knap. It may be used for 'a pimple. or other swelling of the skin'; 'the bud of a [deer's] horn, etc'; 'a small lump'; 'a knot of wood etc'. Knub is a regular variant, now only local, or technical, as is knop, which is defined as "knob, particularly decorative"; most students will not need these forms. There is also a verb 'to knub' meaning 'to nibble', or 'to strike with knuckle'. (Again a confused etymology: "Kindred in origin to nab v.1", and linked to the Middle Low German knubbe, knobbe, gnap and knap.)
    • From knob also comes 'knobstick', 'a stick with a knob on the end', 'a club'; in slang, 'a blackleg' or 'strikebreaker'. This is akin to knobkerrie, also spelled knobkierrie, knobkerrie, knopkierie or knobkerry, itself derived from the Afrikaans or Cape Dutch knop- ('knob') and the native African kirie, -kieri, 'war club'.)
      • There is also the modern slang term for 'penis', particularly glans penis. Do not use this in academic English.
      • Users of AWE may come across two other slang expressions: in the seventeenth century, there was the phrase "to make no knobs", which meant 'to make no difficulty', equivalent to modern 'to make no bones'; and more currently with knobs on, which is essentially juvenile, and means 'that and more'. "The same to you with knobs on" is used as a response to an insult, particularly where the speaker's wit fails, or as an emphatic agreement, ~ 'I couldn't agree with you more', as in "Tony Blair was as bad as Margaret Thatcher" - "Oh, with knobs in" (~ 'he was worse').
    • There is also the verb 'to knob' meaning 'to hit' - cf 'to nob' above.
  • Nub may be the most useful of these words to most students, in the sense of 'the central point of [an argument or discussion or theory etc]'. The etymology given by OED is "Apparently a variant of knub n.", itself a variant of knob. Its first meaning (from 1594) was 'the innermost wrapping of the chrysalis in a silk cocoon', 'the husk'; a second, from the end of the seventeenth century, 'a small lump', 'a nugget', and more specifically (from the nineteenth century) 'a stump, stub, or remnant; something cut off short or imperfectly grown'. From about the same time, nub has been used for "the heart of a matter; the crux or central point of a discussion, argument, etc." (OED).
      • There are also slang meanings of nub: in the East Anglian dialect, the nub was 'the nape of the neck', which gave rise to the verb 'to nub' 'to hang [as capital punishment]', and a further meaning of the noun as 'the gallows'. In the north of England, 'to nub' was 'to nudge', and in the USA, it is a baseball term meaning 'to strike the ball weakly, or with the end of the bat'.