Monday, January 25, 2016

Snuff and Nonsense

I’ve wondered if the phrase “up to snuff”—meaning “capable of performing the task at hand”—has anything to do with the powdered form of tobacco that my grandmother used to gleefully dip into. As it turns out, it does.

The phrase apparently originated in the early nineteenth century. In an 1811 parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by John Poole, he writes: “He knows well enough the game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff.” And in another place: “He is up to snuff, that is, he is the knowing one.”

In Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1823, “up to snuff and a pinch above” is described as meaning “flash,” that is “showy and ostentatious.” It is presumed that the derivation was from the powdered tobacco popular since the seventeenth century, in reference to the stimulating effect it had when taken orally. “Up to snuff” became associated with sharpness of mind and superior ability based on the fact that it was expensive and it was generally carried in ornately decorated boxes. Thus “up to snuff” came to mean “up to a certain high standard” of cost and artistic quality.

No one has figured out what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is up to—but it probably isn’t snuff. 

            A French breakfast is not up to snuff--
            It’s just croissants and other such stuff.
                        No matter how much you beg,
                        You’ll be served only one egg,
            For the French say that one egg is un oeuf.

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