Up to Snuff.

I wondered about the phrase “up to snuff,” so I looked it up. Turns out it didn’t always mean “meeting the required standard,” as it does now; Gary Martin tells us:

In 1811, the English playwright John Poole wrote Hamlet Travestie, a parody of Shakespeare, in the style of Doctor Johnson and George Steevens, which included the expression.

“He knows well enough The game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff.” &

“He is up to snuff, that is, he is the knowing one.”

A slightly later citation of the phrase, in Grose’s Dictionary, 1823, lists it as ‘up to snuff and a pinch above it’, and defines the term as ‘flash’. This clearly shows the derivation to be from ‘snuff’, the powdered tobacco that had become fashionable to inhale in the late 17th century. The phrase derives from the stimulating effect of taking snuff. The association of the phrase with sharpness of mind was enhanced by the fashionability and high cost of snuff and by the elaborate decorative boxes that it was kept in.

The later meaning of ‘up to standard’, in the same sense as ‘up to scratch’ (see also: ‘start from scratch’) began to be used around the turn of the 20th century.

Lots of idioms don’t make sense, but some do if you can trace them back far enough.

Comments

  1. a parody of Shakespeare, in the style of Doctor Johnson and George Steevens

    That is, a parody of Shakespeare, including a parody of their annotations.

  2. I think I have encountered “a pinch above snuff” (or something similar) before, but it must have been in a context in which it was not obvious just what characteristics of the person were being evaluated.

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