The Grammarphobia Blog

Pungent Grains of Titillating Dust

Q: Does the expression “up to snuff” come from the stuff people used to stick up their noses? I don’t see the connection.

A: Yes, the expression almost certainly comes from the pinches of powdered tobacco that people used to inhale (or snuff) through their nostrils.

Although we haven’t found a smoking gun that definitely proves tobacco is the source of the expression, the available evidence is pretty conclusive. Here’s the story.

When the word “snuff” entered English in the late 1300s, it was a noun that referred to the burnt part of the wick on a candle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of around 1382: “Candelquenchers, and … where the snoffes ben quenchid.”

In the mid-1400s, a verb “snuff” showed up and meant to cut off the burnt part of the wick with a special tool.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1465 reference in Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1841): “Item, the same day my master bowt a snoffer to snoffe wyth candeles.”

In the 17th century, the verb “snuff” came to mean to extinguish, as in this citation from a 1687 French-English dictionary by Guy Miege: “To snuff out the Candle.”

And in the 20th century, the verb took on its gangland sense of to kill, as in this cite from When the Gangs Came to London, a 1932 crime novel by Edgar Wallace: “Eddie would have snuffed out Cora.”

The verb “snuff” took on its nasal meaning (“to draw up or in through the nostrils by the action of inhalation”) in the 1500s, according to the OED.

In the late 1600s, the dictionary says, the noun “snuff”  came to mean “a preparation of powdered tobacco for inhaling through the nostrils.”

“The practice of taking snuff appears to have become fashionable about 1680, but prevailed earlier in Ireland and Scotland,” the dictionary notes.

The OED traces the English word to the Dutch and Flemish terms for snuffing tobacco, snuf or snuif, apparently an abbreviation of snuiftabak.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1683 issue of the London Gazette: James Norcock, Snuffmaker and Perfumer … sells all sorts of Snuffs, Spanish and Italian.” 

Getting back to your question, when the expression “up to snuff” showed up in English in the early 1800s, it meant “knowing, sharp, not easily deceived.”

The OED’s first citation is from John Poole’s play Hamlet Travestie (1810), a parody on Shakespeare: “Zooks, he’s up to snuff.”

The dictionary’s next citation, from Pierce Egan’s 1823 revision of Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), offers the best clue to the source of the expression: “Up to snuff, and a pinch above it.”

That pinch is clearly alluding to the use of the powdered tobacco. But why would the use of snuff suggest someone who’s “knowing, sharp, not easily deceived”—the original sense of the expression?

Some wordsmiths have offered the explanation that snuff was expensive and used by rich—and presumably wise—people. But we don’t buy that theory.

We think the original sense of the expression simply referred to the exhilarating feeling one got from a hit of snuff, or, as Alexander Pope referred to it in his poem The Rape of the Lock (1714), the “pungent Grains of titillating Dust.”

It’s not clear from the OED citations when “up to snuff” got its modern sense (“up to the required or usual standard, up to scratch”).

The first clear-cut example in the dictionary is from a Nov. 4, 1931, issue of Punch: “Now Romney painted well enough, / And Reynolds too, they say, / And Gainsborough’s things are up to snuff, / And Lawrence had his day.”

However, we’d suggest that Pierce Egan’s 1823 citation above (“Up to snuff, and a pinch above it”) may have used the expression in its modern sense.

And Charles Dickens may have used it in the modern sense too when he put these words in the mouth of Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers (1836): “Up to snuff and a pinch or two over—eh?”

We’ll let the lexicographer John Ayto have the last word on “snuff.”

In his Dictionary of Word Origins, Ayto says the word “snuff” in all its senses probably goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base “imitative of the sound of drawing air in noisily through the nose.”

How, you may ask, does the word’s candle sense have anything to do with its nasal sense?

It seems that to “snot,” an obsolete verb, once meant to put out a candle as well as to blow one’s nose.

And that, Ayto says, suggests that the candle sense of the word “may ultimately have connections with the inner workings of the nose (possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus).”

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