The Grammarphobia Blog

Nose piece

Q: Why isn’t there a word that by itself means blow the nose? This is such a common act that there ought to be one word to take the place of three. You agree? I suggest “honk.”

A: There is such a word, or at least there was (and it wasn’t “honk”). The unlovely word “snot” was once a verb meaning to blow one’s nose. Really!

The verb “snot,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was derived from the noun, which has roots in old Germanic languages.

In the early 1400s, when the noun was first recorded, it meant both “the burnt part of a candle-wick” and “the mucus of the nose.”

What’s the connection here? As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, there was “possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus.” His words, not ours.

The verb “snot,” the OED informs us, was first recorded in English at about the same time as the noun. When it originally appeared, it meant “to snuff (a candle),” Oxford says. So to “snot” a candle meant to put it out.

In the 1500s, according to the OED, the verb was first recorded with the other meaning—“to blow or clear (the nose).” So to “snot” one’s nose was to blow it.

The earliest use in writing for the nasal meaning comes from a 1576 translation of Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo, a treatise on manners:

 “They spare not to snot their sniueld noses vppon them.” (The word written as “sniueld” is “sniveled”; to “snivel” originally meant to run at the nose.)

The OED also has two 17th-century citations from old dictionaries.

This one is from an Italian-English dictionary dated 1611: “Smozzicare … to snot ones nose.” And this is from a French-English dictionary dated 1632: “To snot (or blow) his nose, se moucher le nez.”

Sometimes the nose-blowing was involuntary, if this 1653 example, from a translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, is any indication: “Then he … sneezed and snotted himself.”

Since the subject is noses, you might be interested in knowing that many English words that start with “sn-” have something to do with the nose, and in the languages they came from, they probably echoed the sound of air passing noisily through the nostrils.

Words thought to have imitative or onomatopoeic origins include “snot,” “snore,” “snort,” “snout,” “schnoz,” “sneeze,” “snoot,” “snooty” (in the sense of looking down one’s nose), and the 20th-century word “snorkel” for a breathing tube. Also “snuff” and “snuffle,” “sniff” and “sniffle,” and the aforementioned “snivel.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, words like these have origins in prehistoric Germanic roots that are believed to echo nasal sounds and are associated with breathing, blowing, or sneezing.

We can’t end this treatise on nose-blowing without mentioning that old snot joke from childhood. Pat’s version: “I thought it was a booger, but it’s snot.” Stewart’s: “It looks like mucus, but it’s snot.”

And here’s an even sillier version we found online: “Don’t kiss your honey when your nose is runny. You may think it’s funny but it’s snot.”  

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