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On snuff and snout

Last week (see the post for May 1, 2019), I finished my story by citing the German phrase mirist es schnuppe “it is all the same to me, I cannot care less,” literally, or so it appears, “it is tobacco to me.” Such phrases are often almost meaningless. Consider the English equivalent not to give a tinker’s dam(n).There is no agreement on the last word. Is it damn? Then the phrase is rude (though perhaps not in this day and age, when most of us have become deaf to swearing). But what if it is dam, a coin? Then the impolite phrase is acceptable but still enigmatic: what do tinkers have to do with it? However, schnuppe looks like Schnuppe “snuff on a candle,” only spelled with a small letter (nouns are capitalized in Modern German). Why schnuppe? At one time, schnuppe was derived from Yiddish schonab “cool.” According to a more realistic suggestion, schnuppe is indeed “snuff on a candle,” something worthless. However, in the same idiom, instead of schnuppe, one can say wurst. The noun wurst means “sausage” (just spell it with capital W!), certainly not a worthless object.

Taking snuff and enjoying it. Image credit: “Schnupfer corrected” by Sharrow Mills. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

European languages have a complex relationship with nicotine. The not too common Russian expression delo—tabak “this business is tobacco” means “the affair has gone awry.” Why so? But here we are interested in English usage. I am aware of two idioms with snuff. Today, the first of them is either rare or forgotten: to take it in snuff “to take offence.” The few explanations of this phrase are full of words like doubtless, it is clear, no doubt, and almost certain, which should be interpreted as meaning that everything is doubtful, unclear, and uncertain. If I am not mistaken, the OED does not mention take it in snuff among the several similar variants from its files. One of them is to give one snuff “to punish,” with the earliest citation going back to 1890 (and this must be approximately the time when this odd idiom was coined). But take it in snuff showed up in my database.

Here is one of the attempts to make sense of snuff here: “The original reference was… to the unpleasant smell proceeding from the smoking snuff of a candle, but there may also have been association with snuff  ‘an (or the) act of snuffing, especially as an expression of contempt or disdain’.” Ay, there’s the rub. As usual, we cannot decide which snuff is meant: tobacco or the charred part of the candlewick. Hence the hesitant tone in the 1869 note, written by John Addis (†1876), a poet and a regular perspicacious contributor to Notes and Queries. He believed that the nose powder took its name from the act of snuffing up (by which it is inhaled, while snuff “dudgeon” comes from the sniffing (his italics in both cases), “the expansion of the nostrils, which is a sign of sudden passion.” “The connection which seemingly exists between the snuffing of a candle and the blowing of the nose,” Addis continued, “is more puzzling….. Can [it] arise from the like action of the finger and thumb in both cases, before snuffers and pocket-handkerchiefs were invented?”

Giving snuff and not enjoying it. Image credit: “Kid people” by unknown artist. Public Domain via SVG Silh.

To complicate matters, Latin emungo means “to blow one’s nose” and “to cheat,” while in French we find moucher “wipe somebody’s nose; to snub, give one snuff” (a common combination in European languages) and (!) to “snuff a candle”! The following comment, also dated to 1869, insists that “this saying [take it in snuff]…has no connection with ‘powdered tobacco’…. The act of drawing up the nostrils is sniffing or snuffing, as expressing of disgust, contempt, scorn, or ridicule, naturally produces the wrinkles on the nose; and this… from being so common a way of exhibiting their feelings, first suggested the idea and gained for it such acceptance, that even by Plautus it is spoken of as ‘vetustum adagium’ [very old adage].”

All this may be true, but in the idioms cited above, German schnuppe means “tobacco,” and so does Russian tabak. It looks as though at some stage, the words for snuffand snuffgot into each other’s way. The dense plot thickens even more when we look at the still living phrase up to snuff “up to the required standard; shrewd.” Is snuff “mucus in the nose” or “tobacco” here? The familiar quotation from Horace homoemunctænaris (approximately, “a man whose nose is free from snot”) means “a sagacious man.” We again wonder: couldn’t up to snuff arise with the sense similar to that suggested by Horace’s image (even though it had not been recorded in English before 1810) and later be associated with tobacco?

Horace: homo emuctæ naris. Image credit: Page 53 of “A day in ancient Rome; being a revision of Lohr’s ‘Aus dem alten Rom’, with numerous illustrations, by Edgar S. Shumway” by Internet Book Archives. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr.

Finally, last time, I promised to return to the English word snotty. Why does it mean “conceited; impudent; superior”? The history of this adjective is as follows (the dates in parentheses are those reflecting the citations given in the OED): “foul with snot” (1545-1633; so, apparently, no one has used snotty as suggested by its origin for nearly four centuries!); “dirty, mean, contemptible” (now dialectal or slang: 1681-1974), and “angry, pert, short-tempered, proud, conceited,” now “supercilious, conceited” (1870-1978). Its synonym (almost a doublet) is snooty, derived from a phonetic variant of snout, thus “looking down one’s nose,” as it were. The nose is a prominent part of the face. It does a lot of things. Yet the way from “full of mucus” to “supercilious” is remarkable.

To our surprise, we find Old (!) Engl. snotor “clever, wise,” with close cognates not only in Old High German and Old Icelandic but also in Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century. Old Engl. (gi) snot, mentioned among other things last week, meant “snot, mucus in the nose” (gi- is a collective prefix here). The origin of those Germanic adjectives has provoked long but inconclusive controversy. It has been suggested that snotor and its kin perhaps derive from some word for “snout” (snout once meant “trunk”) or rather “feel” (noun, a hunting term). To be sure, they may have a root that has nothing to do with nose, but this is less likely.

A snooty snob. Image credit: “Cartoon Cold Comic” by OpenClipart-Vectors. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

In the previous post, we watched an impressive variety of vowels and consonants in the words under discussion: sniff~ snuff, snip, snubsnot. I suggested that this was the result of language play. The same variety comes to the fore in Old Germanic. Old English had snoff“nausea” and snofl “mucus,” along with its synonym snyfling (which immediately reminds us of Engl. snivel), while Old Icelandic had snopp“snout” (the length of ffand pppossibly suggests emphasis), and –snot. If snotty“full of snot” could eventually yield “supercilious,” is it possible that Old Engl. snotor “clever” and Gothic snutrs “wise” are the last stages of a similar progression (from “looking superior” to “very clever”)? We don’t know, but, if similar sematic change occurred independently about a thousand and about a hundred years ago, we can only marvel at the constancy of human associations. By the way, when Germans say that they have the nose full, they mean that they are fed up with the issue.

Featured image: “Tobacco Harvest” by WikimediaImages. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “To give one snuff” appears in 1844 in an English translation of a Swedish book, Neighbours: A story of every-day life / By Frederika Bremer, p. 24. The translator in a footnote wrote that it was “a common term in Sweden.”
    https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn3amh;view=1up;seq=786

  2. steve kerensky

    Dam also a horse`s mother?

  3. Ian Ritchie

    Italians are famous for using their hands to convey meaning. Interestingly, repeatedly tapping the right side of the bridge of one’s nose indicates cleverness (snotor).

  4. Yves Rehbein

    With colloquial pro drop it should be acceptable to cite shorter, “mir Wurst”. It is capitalized by the official rules at least, because it inflects chiefly like a noun and the syntax does not change that. The rules list a rather short list of nominal nouns that can be written without caps when appearing as adpositions–not including Wurst. Isn’t that wonderfully arbitrary? It is one and the same to me, because it shouldn’t be written down. That does not really help, but compare “einerlei” (einer Lei’?), “eine Suppe”.

    Anyhow, I just stumbled pretty much by coincidence over sowie “altnordisch snǫrgla → non „röcheln […] litauisch niauróti → lt „brummen“, niurnė́ti → lt „knurren, murmeln, schnurren“, snarglỹs → lt „Nasenschleim [=mucus]” when looking up “nörgeln” in de.wiktionary. The comparison seems sketchy to me, what with the “s-“, and I expected a relation to Greek “erga” et all, cog “work”, but I’m not going to complain. That “snorgla” may be akin to “Schnorchel” and “schnorcheln”. It also reminds of “Ist mir Schnurz”.

    Just for your interest.

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