What Is The Origin Of (268)?…

Like snuff at a wake

If burning a strip of tobacco in a paper casing seems a daft idea, then taking a pinch of tobacco between your thumb and index finger and snorting it up one nostril, ensuring the other is closed, and then repeating the exercise with the other is even more ludicrous. Snuff taking is very much out of fashion these days, but you can always tell when a pinch has been taken because a loud, stentorian sneeze resounds around the room. But taking snuff was once a fashionable way of getting your nicotine fix and has spawned several phrases with which we pepper up our language. One such is like snuff at a wake which is a simile for describing liberality or generosity.

It originates from Ireland, like many a colourful phrase, and specifically relates to a custom at a wake. A bowl of snuff was placed on the chest of the deceased. This custom served three purposes, one, as snuff was a rare and desirable commodity, it brought mourners closer to the coffin, and, once there would encourage them to say a prayer for the deceased’s  immortal soul, two, to prevent the mourners from falling asleep during the night vigil and , three, if it rose and fell, it gave a pretty good clue that the incumbent in the box wasn’t dead. There is no recorded instance of anyone being saved from an early internment because of a moving snuff bowl but it was often the case that the bowl of snuff had to be replaced. In parts of England this custom was observed, although the snuff was replaced with bread and a bowl of salt.

Perhaps the first case of the phrase being used in a figurative sense, with a meaning akin to from pillar to post, was in a humorous piece, ostensibly a report of a court case, appearing in the Freeman’s Journal, a Dublin magazine, on June 19, 1844, in which the unfortunate prisoner is reported as saying, “is that any reason why I am to be robbed of my liberty, strapped on a stretcher, and thrown about from policeman to policeman like snuff at a wake”. This rather negative connotation with the phrase was echoed by James Joyce in his account of O’Callaghan on his last legs in Chapter six of Ulysses; “Terrible comedown, poor wretch! Kicked about like snuff at a wake”.

However, by the time Bloom uses the phrase again, in Chapter 13 during the Nausicaa section, it has a more positive connotation; “others in vessels, bit of handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the stormy winds do blow”. It is with a more positive connotation that it is used in earlier sources, this one, from the Emigrant Soldier’s Gazette of February 19, 1859 almost exactly echoed by Joyce’s second usage; “the masts bindin’ like switches an’ the sails in smithereens, an’ the life bouys flyin’ about like snuff at a wake”.   

The sense of liberality or generosity appears in the phrase’s usage in the Illustrated Dublin Journal of December 28. 1862; “new buckskins, as my grandfather was a gentleman; new brogues, new coat, new everything – the signs of money flying about him like snuff at a wake”. The phrase crossed the Atlantic, presumably with the Irish migrants, appearing in the United States Investor of May 14, 1898; “advice to take up Americans, pay for them, and hold them, is “flung about like snuff at a wake”.

Whether used in a positive or negative sense, it is a wonderfully evocative phrase and one that deserves to be used like snuff at a wake.

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