Q From Jo Ann Larkin: I am a language arts teacher and I often use word etymology to pique my students’ interest in the development of language. We all enjoy discussing the origin of slang phrases. One in particular has us stumped, so I submit it to you for any help you may be able to give us. The term in question is nosy Parker. Any ideas?
A The short answer is that nobody knows where it comes from, but that hardly seems like an adequate response. Some pointers, then.
The most frequent origin suggested is the late (the very late) Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. He was a reforming cleric, noted for sending out detailed enquiries and instructions relating to the conduct of his diocese. Like many reformers, he was regarded as a busybody.
However, the huge flaw in this suggestion is that the term nosey Parker (or nosy Parker), isn’t recorded until 1890. Nosey or nosy for someone overly inquisitive, figuratively always sticking their nose into other people’s affairs, is older, but even that only dates back to the 1820s. Before then, anyone said to be nosey was just somebody with a big nose, like the Duke of Wellington, who had the nickname Old Nosey.
Some writers have sought the answer in parker as an informal term for a park-keeper, an official in charge of a park, which dates from medieval times. Eric Partridge suggests an origin in park-keepers at the time of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. Another idea is that nosy Parker was originally nose-poker. Poker, in the sense of somebody who pries into another’s affairs, has a long history, pre-dating the nineteenth-century appearance of nosy Parker, but there’s no evidence that nose-poker ever existed.
The current view is that Parker is a proper name, probably fictitious. This is based on many early examples being in the form Mr Nosy Parker, as here:
You’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you.
Belgravia Magazine, May 1890.
However, there’s no clue in the historical record who this over-inquisitive person might have been. We may never know the full story.