The Grammarphobia Blog

A nosy question

Q: I’ve noticed that many English words beginning with the letters “sn” have something to do with the NOSE, either physically or metaphorically. Is this merely a coincidence, or is there some hidden ancient root in there? I’m thinking of such words as sneeze, snore, snort, snout, snot, snotty, snarl, snoot, snooty, sneer, snuff, snuffy, snuffle, snide, sniff, snivel, snob, snobby, snobbery, snoop, snooze, snuff, and (almost) schnoz.

A: I hadn’t noticed this before, but now that you mention it ….

“Snore” and “snort” (as well as the 20th-century word “snorkel”) are from the same prehistoric Germanic root, “snor.”

The words “snot,” “snotty,” “snout,” “snoot,” “snooty” (in the sense of looking down one’s nose) and “schnoz” are all related to a similar prehistoric Germanic root associated with the nose, “snut.”

The words “snuff” (the powdered tobacco), “snuffle,” “sniff,” and “sniffle” are believed to come from the earlier “snivel,” which originally meant to run at the nose. They’re all thought to derive ultimately from yet another prehistoric Germanic root, “snuf,” imitative of the sound of air drawn in through the nose.

So all these words can be traced to old Germanic roots that sounded like “snor,” “snut,” and “snuf.” Gesundheit!

In Old English, the word for “sneeze” began with “fn,” and the eventual change to “sn” in the 15th century may have been influenced by the similar sounding “snort” and “snore.” Another influence was probably the similarity of the “f” and the “s” in medieval manuscripts.

“Snob” is unrelated, and “snooze” is of uncertain origin. But “snitch,” meaning an informer, may be related to a 17th-century word for a fillip on the nose. So there may be a connection there.

All this comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, and The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

Excuse me while I go blow my nose.

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