A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (115)?…


Up to snuff

Some of us use this slightly odd phrase to denote that somebody or something is of the required standard. I have more usually found it with the negative not at the start of it, denoting, obviously, a deficiency.

The snuff in the phrase refers to powdered tobacco which was ingested up the nose, a rather peculiar habit, it always struck me, but one which was popular in the 17th to 19th centuries. You can always tell someone who has taken snuff – they are prone to bouts of volcanic sneezing fits and their handkerchiefs are smeared with brown stains. Alexander Pope penned some lines on the habit, “just where the breath of life his nostrils drew,/ a charge of snuff the wily virgin threw:/ the gnomes direct to ev’ry atom just;/ the pungent grains of titillating dust”. Another way of taking it was to rub it into the teeth and gums. Snuff was often scented with the perfume of roses, lavender, jasmine, cloves and the like. When it was first introduced snuff came ready grated but later users would buy ungrated snuff called rappee and carry graters, often in elaborately decorated boxes, to do it themselves.

The origin of the word snuff is by no means clear. It is thought that it came from the Middle Dutch verb snuffen which meant to sniff or snuffle which makes sense, I suppose. Alternatively, it may have been an abbreviation of snuftaback or sniff-tobacco.

Leaving aside the bogus medicinal properties attributed to snuff which we reviewed a while back in our discussion of Angelick snuff, aficionados of snuff claim that it gives them a brief feeling of exhilaration and a sense of well-being. The earliest sense in which our phrase was used has the sense of sharpness, being keen and alert, not easily deceived. John Poole whose usage in his play Hamlet Travestie of 1811 may be the first example in print, used it in this sense, “He knows well enough the game we’re after; zooks he’s up to snuff”.

By the time Charles Dickens came to use it some twenty-five years later in Pickwick Papers – “up to snuff, and a pinch or two over” – it had taken its modern usage of being up to standard. The pinch or two over clearly added to the sense – it was better than the standard.- and gives confirmation, if one was needed, that it is a reference to the tobacco concoction. Dickens’ phrase made an earlier appearance in the inestimable Grose’s Dictionary in which the lexicographer defines it as meaning flash. Another variant was up to snuff and twopenny. Sir Walter Scott in chapter 66 of Waverley talks of a bottle of two-penny which was the name given to the strongest beer and reflected its price for a quart. Its usage in our phrase is to reinforce the sense that everything was in order.

When the phrase crossed the pond, it had slightly changed its meaning, and was used to refer to a person’s physical condition. If you wake up feeling up to snuff, you are in good shape.

I just hope you find this post up to snuff.


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