Q: My grandfather used a lot of idioms that I’ve never heard outside Pequannock, Lincoln Park, or Montville, N.J. (all settled by the Dutch—good farmland). One was “snout,” meaning to complain loudly and make the listener feel as if he/she were at fault. Would love to know the origin.
A: The words “snoot” and “snout” have been used by Americans in various ways since the mid-1800s to express disdain for someone. Both terms ultimately come from the contemptuous use of “snout” for a big or oddly shaped human nose, a usage that dates back to England in the mid-13th century.
We suspect that this 19th-century American sense is the source of your grandfather’s use of “snout” to mean complain loudly and critically. But it may also have been influenced by expressions in German or the variety of German spoken in Pennsylvania, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.
In the 19th century, DARE says, Easterners began using the expressions “make a snout” or “make snoots” in the sense of “to grimace, to make faces (at someone).” The dictionary suggests that this “US use may in some cases reflect the equivalent Ger phr eine Schnauze (or Schnute) machen, PaGer en schnut mache.”
The regional dictionary’s earliest example is from a New York newspaper: “This reminds us of the language of the little fellow to the chap that had him down … ‘If I can’t lick you, I can make snoots at your sister!’ ” (Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat, June 20, 1844.)
The only other 19th-century DARE citation is from a newspaper in Frederick, Md.: “She made a snoot at me and told me to scat.” (Daily News, Aug. 27, 1884.)
An early 20th-century example from southeastern Pennsylvania supports the dictionary’s suggestion that the usage may have been influenced by German, especially the dialect spoken in Pennsylvania, which is also known as Pennsylvania Dutch:
“Make a snout (snoot). Grimace. ‘Teacher, he’s making snouts at me.’ … fr. Pa. Ger. schnoot mŏchă; Ger. schnauze machen.” (From German American Annals, Philadelphia, January-February 1908.)
(German-speaking settlers and their descendants in Pennsylvania were often referred to as “Dutch” because the word “German” was Deutsch in German and Deitsch in the local dialect.)
DARE doesn’t have any examples for “snoot” or “snout” used by itself as a verb meaning to complain or grimace. However, all five standard American dictionaries now list “snoot” as a verb that means to treat disdainfully or condescendingly.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several 20th-century American examples of “snoot” used in the sense of “to snub; to treat scornfully or with disdain.”
The earliest OED example is from A Couple of Quick Ones, a 1928 novel by the New Yorker writer Eric S. Hatch: “I followed him … up the street to where the Wright limousine was snooting the world in general at the kerb.”
The latest Oxford citation is from a review of The Slipper and the Rose, a film updating the Cinderella story: “Cinderella (Gemma Craven) gets snooted by her Stepsisters and gazes sorrowfully into the flames of the scullery fire.” (Time, Jan. 17, 1977.)
Oxford doesn’t connect the pejorative use of “snoot” and “snout” in verb phrases with the use of “snoot” alone in the scorning sense, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a connection is found one day.
Interestingly, the OED does have several examples of “snout” used in much the way your grandfather used it, but they’re all from Australia. The dictionary says that in Australian slang, “snout” means “to bear ill-will towards; to treat with disfavour, to rebuff.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Moods of Ginger Mick, a 1916 novel about World War I by C. J. Dennis: “An’ snouted them that snouted ’im, an’ never give a dam.”
If your grandfather served in World War I or II, he may have picked up his use of “snout” in the fault-finding sense from Australian soldiers, though we think a more likely source is the grimacing American use of “snoot” and “snout” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Both the Australian and American usages ultimately come from the scornful use of “snout” in medieval England for a big or odd human nose, a sense that showed up in King Horn, a Middle English poem of chivalry and romance dating from the mid-1200s:
“He lokede him abute, / Wiþ his colmie snute” (“He looked all about / With his sooty snout”).