Posted by: Jack Henry | November 3, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Snuff

Dear Editrix,

I know what snuff is, and what “up to snuff” means, but where did the terms come from?


Curious in San Diego

Good morning, Curious!

This is definitely a great word to look into. When I hear “snuff,” I think of old Western films, where Snippy or Whiskey Pete, the town drunk, is snorting “snuff.” But it has so many different definitions. Here are a few, condensed definitions (from Merriam-Webster):

Verb: snuff

1a: to crop the snuff of (a candle) by pinching or by the use of snuffers so as to brighten the light

1b: to extinguish by or as if by the use of snuffers: make extinct: put an end to: to kill, usually used with out

1c: to draw in forcibly through the nostrils

2: to perceive or detect by smelling: scent, smell

3: to sniff at in order to examine—used of an animal

4: to lightly buff (the grain side of leather) so as to remove grain imperfections

Noun: snuff

1: the charred part of a candlewick

2: the act of snuffing; sniffing, inhalation

2a: a preparation of pulverized tobacco to be chewed, placed against the gums, or inhaled through the nostrils [KC – This is what I’ve usually heard snuff referring to.]

2b: the amount of snuff taken at one time: pinch

As for the phrase, “up to snuff,” here is the explanation from our buddies at the Grammarist:

To be of good quality or up to someone’s required standards. It is also a general idiom meaning in good health. The phrase is never hyphenated unless used as a modifier (e.g., an up-to-snuff device).

Snuff was powdered tobacco inhaled through the nose. The phrase up to snuff comes from a playwright in the 1800s. He used it to describe someone as knowing what is going on or being well-informed or ‘in the know’.

Over time the definition changed and now it more closely resembles the phrase up to scratch. This means for something to meet a particular standard or requirement.

The scratch comes from marking the ground for competitions, either a line for a race or a circle for two fighters. [KC – Discussed

in Editor’s Corner.]

It is interesting that, with all the different definitions, the use of the phrase comes simply from an author who coined the term while writing a play. I was waiting for an exciting evolution of the term from the snuff going up the nose of Whiskey Pete in some dusty Western film!

Candle snuffer

Fancy snuff box

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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