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Sniff—snuff—SNAFU

I have received several questions about sl– and sn– words and will soon answer them, but today I’ll write about the word that has interested me for a long time, especially in connection with two idioms.

The word is snuff. First there is snuff “a candlewick partly consumed.” Then there is snuff “tobacco for inhaling.” Many dictionaries state that snuff1 and snuff2 are not related. Perhaps they aren’t, but in our search for their origin, we may discover that the term related is not as clear as it sometimes seems. For starters, it is a good idea to be guided by the principle, formulated by Jacob Grimm: while dealing with homonyms, try to find a common etymon for them. (Such an etymon may not exist, but the attempt is worth the effort.)

This is Candlewick, Pinocchio’s friend and seducer. Image credit: “An image from ‘Le avventure di Pinocchio'” by Enrico Mazzanti. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is not clear why so many sl- words refer to things slippery and sleazy, but the initial group sn– often makes people think about an active nose. For instance, regardless of Dutch snoepen “to eat (on the sly),” the etymon of snoop (originally an Americanism), the English verb suggests nosing around. A snout, we may agree, is a very useful nose. The connection of snoring and sneezing with the nose needs no proof. Sneeze is especially typical. The Old English verb was fnēsan (it had exact congeners in German ad Old Norse) and should have yielded fnese, but in late Middle English, fn– in fnesen was replaced with sn-. I suspect that fnese did not survive because no English word begins with fn, but mainly because sn– fit the sense perfectly. (Or do you say fitted? The history of the past tense of put, set, quit, and their likes is a plot fit for a thriller. I suspect that your little sons and daughters wet their beds when they were babies, but Hamlet definitely whetted Gertrude’s almost blunted purpose.)

Long ago, I wrote a post about the enigmatic word snob (May 14, 2009). Those interested in the present discussion may consult it with some profit. Whatever the origin of snob, it was coined as a term of abuse, the name of someone at whom you could cock a snook(s), a sign of derision and superiority. Snuff “tobacco” acquired its meaning because tobacco was inhaled, or sniffed. The word’s source is apparently Dutch. German has the verb schnupfen “to take snuff” and the noun Schnupfen “a cold,” that is, a disease that produces too much mucus, or snot, in the nose. An overabundance of snot makes one miserable, rather than snotty, but one never knows in what direction associations with the nose will develop. I’ll return to snottiness next week.

And this is a real candlewick, the parent of snuff. Image credit: “Candle wick” by Vive la Rosière. CC BY-SAY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

German schnauben means “to snort.” At schnauben, the latest edition of Friedrich Kluge’s German etymological dictionary lists many words of this type, with the conclusion that all of them refer to the nose, sneezing, snot, and so forth. Although they begin with sn-, their final sounds vary, and all such words need not go back to the same source. This is the trouble with all sound-symbolic and echoic formations. Obviously, an etymologist has to account for every sound of the word under discussion, but in this area, doing so proves to be an almost impossible task. I may perhaps be allowed to repeat the metaphor I have used in several of my previous posts. Such words, the plebs of word formation, are like mushrooms growing on a stump: we observe great similarity in the absence of a common root. Or they resemble people wearing the same uniform: in a crowd, they resemble one another, but they have different parents.

If we disregard a few words like snow, whose history goes all the way to the days of the IndoEuropeans, we note with surprise how m many sn-words reached English from Dutch or Low German (Low in this phrase means “northern”). To High German, the same words, sometimes slightly altered phonetically, also came from the north. When a word is borrowed, there must be a reason for it. I have never seen an explanation of why a multitude of sn– words current in the north of the European mainland had such a strong appeal to the speakers of the neighboring areas. Who transmitted them? Snack, snaffle “a bit on a bridle,” snick “to cut, snip,” snap and its synonym snip, snipsnapsnorum “a card game,” snot, snout, snook (the fish), snarl, snuffle “to breathe nosily through the nose” (though not snivel), and possibly sneer and snug are of that origin!

No one will disagree that a snout is a very useful nose. Image credit: “TN State Fair Pig” by Brent Moore. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Snobs tend to snub those who, they believe, are their inferiors, do they not? To illustrate the mess we are in, I would like to retell what Walter W. Skeat said about snuff and snub. At the beginning of each entry, Skeat indicated the language of the word’s origin. At snuff “to sniff, smell,” he wrote Dutch and traced it to Middle Dutch snuffen, related to snuyven (Modern Dutch snuiven) and Dutch snuf “smelling, scent.” Those he compared with a few Swedish and German words, all from the reconstructed root sneub-. Whether such a root existed need not bother us at the moment. Snuff “powdered tobacco” is said to be a derivative of this verb. He labeled snuff “to snip off the top of a candlewick” as English and parallel (whatever parallel means in this context) to English regional snop “to eat off, as cattle do young shoots” and Swedish regional snōppa “to snip off, snuff a candle.” But at the end of the entry he says: “See snub”! Snub is said to be of Scandinavian origin. Among its cognates we find East Frisian (which in this context means “Low German”) snubbe “to snub, chide,” originally “to snip off the end of a thing.”

In this word group, vowels seem to signify nothing and consonants, except for sn-, very little. Why did Skeat think that snuff “candlewick” is English, even though it is so close to Low German schnuppe? The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) says that this word is of unknown origin. Bu do we have a chance of discovering its origin, that is, of pinpointing its exact source and way of derivation? I doubt it. To complicate matters, this snuff was preceded by its synonym snot! Skeat called snot English, but the ODEE prefers to trace it to Middle Low German/Dutch, even though it too (like Skeat) cites Old Engl. ge-snot (the same meaning), a cognate of German Schmutz “dirt.”

Less than a thousand years ago, we would have said that she is fnesing. Image credit: “Sneeze” by Tina Franklin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

It seems that we have a knot that refuses to be disentangled. Perhaps it would be more honest to say that Germanic, mainly Low German/Dutch and to a lesser degree Scandinavian, presents us with nouns and verbs having the structure sn + a vowel (the vowel is usually short) + a voiceless stop (that is, p, t, or k). Many, but not all of them, refer to the activities of the nose. They are products of unbridled language creativity, the result of a language play that followed vague and partly unpredictable rules. People seemed to ask themselves: “What should we call this thing or action?” and answered: “Let us call it’s not or perhaps snuff.” If we were the contemporaries of that game, we might have been able to follow some of the hidden steps, but even that is not clear. Modern slang follows the same pattern and is notoriously hard to etymologize. Are snuff1 and snuff2 related? The answer depends on how closely we want them to be allied.

Unexpectedly, the plot thickens. Germans say mir ist es schnuppe “I cannot care less,” literally, “to me it is tobacco.” Why do they say so, and are they alone in this respect? We will return to the tobacco industry next week.

Featured image: Snapdragon, a snout-shaped flower. “Flowers” by Eirena. Pixabay License via Pixabay. 

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    I would add some Baltic words in the company – SN/ŠN words should be looked after like šņukurs LV and šnipas LT for snout, snuķis is LV for elephant’s trunk, and there are lots of verbs of šņaukt (sniff) / šņākt (hiss) type and derivations related to nose and different sounds. It seems interesting also parallel meanings of LT siekti and LV sniegt/sniegties give/reach smth, maybe also related to nose when it touches something or reaches certain level (as for snob :)

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    what is also interesting LT snapas (beak) is Latvian knābis, related to nebb, snipe

  3. Yves Rehbein

    If snob should relate to schnupfen, then the meme of snobs speaking nasal (verschnupft).

    Ger. “Sternschnuppe” (shooting-star) also exists.

    I am not sure “It is tobacco to me” would be an apt translation, as the saying is opaque. “tobacco” reminds me that I wondered about Dutch “halfzware shack”, and how the German equivalent “Verschnitt” printed on rolling tobacco packs should be interpreted (byproduct?), but the answer is probably not helpful unless it incures “stuff” or Ger. “stopfen” (stuff that in your pipe). “vorbeischnuppern” meaning “to pay a quick visit” seemingly relates to dogs sniffing to say hello. So much for “snoop”. That reminds me to ask whether “sneak, snuck”, and “to sneak under the sheats” might explain the German term of endearment “Schnuckel”, diminutive “Schnuckelchen” (cuty-pie), the perplexing “Schnecke” (snail; honey, darling), and “schnakseln” (kind of to make out)?!

    But back on topic, the best allusion to “mir Schnuppe” I can think of is “die Nase/Schnauze voll haben” (to have the nose/mouth full, lit. angrilly to have enough, be fed up), so maybe the original sense was “I don’t care, I can’t take it anymore, I’m sick of this sh…”. French instead has the hump or back filled up, “avoir plein le dos”, (as if over-loaded), which but replaced “cul” (which in that phrase must be a vulgar bowdlerization of something else).

    “sneeze” and Ger. “niesen”, or rather “schneuzen” (to blow ones nose) leave no doubt that “nose” or “snout” (“Schnauze”, thus better “schnäuzen”) are in there.

  4. Tim Marr

    And what did prisoners in the UK – at least until quite recently – traditionally call their valued allowance of rolling tobacco? Why, snout.

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