Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not Up to Snuff

You may have thought my most recent posts have been a little lackluster, and truthfully, the last few days, I have, as my late grandfather would have said, not been feeling up to snuff.  It could be the recent weather being warm, then rainy, warmer, then rainy again, and now growing colder.  Whatever it is, I have just had no energy the last few days, have had a headache, and just generally feeling blah.  I get  a four day weekend this weekend, so hopefully, I will recuperate and get back to my normal self.  Until then, I thought I would give you the meaning of my granddaddy's old saying "not up to snuff."
"Up to snuff," meaning "satisfactory" or "measuring up to the required standard" turns out to be quite an interesting phrase. First of all, "snuff" all by itself is an intriguing word, or should I say "words," because there are really two different "snuffs." The older "snuff," of unknown origin and dating back to the 14th century, meant the burnt part of a candle wick. As a verb, this "snuff" meant "to extinguish a candle" and it is from this sense that we get our modern metaphor of "snuffing" someone's hopes (or, in slang, actually expunging the person). 
The other kind of "snuff," meaning powdered tobacco inhaled through the nostrils, came along a bit later, in the 1680's. The root of this "snuff" was probably the verb "to snuff," meaning to draw up into the nose (think back to your last "snuffling" head cold), and it apparently began as an abbreviation of the Dutch word "snuiftabak," or snuffing tobacco. "Taking snuff" was a popular habit in Europe for hundreds of years, so its not surprising that it showed up in a metaphor for "satisfactory" or "usual." What remains a little unclear about "up to snuff" is whether the phrase refers to a level of acceptable quality of snuff itself, or to the wide-awake and perky attitude of someone who has just taken snuff.
The phrase, "up to snuff," likely dates from Britain where it is recorded in 1811 with the meaning "knowing; not easily deceived". In America in 1831 its meaning had changed to "up to standard". The British meaning arose from the notion of being old or experienced enough to take snuff, and the American form was an expansion of that meaning.

3 comments:

silvereagle said...

JoeBlow -- I have to disagree when you say your recent postings have not "been upto snuff" --- Look at the discussions you have generated on the monitor page here! Must be something there you have written to cause them!!

I think you are definitely "up to snuff", "right on the mark", "dead center", "hitting the mark" and the list goes on....

Hope you get over the blah-ness.

Jay M. said...

I agree with @silvereagle!
Perhaps a bit shorter? Maybe not as historically oriented? But they still made me think!

Hope you feel better soon. I think I have the same blahs, think I'll sleep a lot over my (only) 3 day weekend.

Peace <3
Jay

tamayn said...

I actually love getting into the history of phrases. I think this would be an awesome thing to see as a regular thing. I may even try it over at my blog. I haven't been as academic about the language as I've tried to be before.