snuff

Definitions

Slang

  • verb to kill. An old term, derived from the notion of extinguishing a candle. The curt ‘tough guy’ use of the word remains popular in street slang and crime fiction, particularly in the USA.
  • verb to sniff cocaine. An item from the drug user’s vocabulary.

Origin & History of “snuff”

English has three words snuff, all probably going back ultimately to a prehistoric Germanic base *snuf-, imitative of the sound of drawing air noisily in through the nose. Snuff ‘powdered tobacco for inhaling’ (17th c.) was borrowed from Dutch snuf. This was probably short for snuftabak, etymologically ‘sniff-tobacco’, which in turn was derived from middle Dutch snuffen ‘sniff, snuffle’, source of English snuff ‘sniff’ (16th c.). That base *snuf- also produced English snuffle (16th c.), probably borrowed from Low German or Dutch snuffelen, and snivel (14th c.), which may go back to an unrecorded Old English *snyflan; and sniff (14th c.), if not directly related, was certainly similarly inspired by the sound of sniffing.

Snuff ‘put out a candle’ was derived in the 15th century from the noun snuff ‘burnt candlewick’ (14th c.). The origins of this are not known, but the fact that the now obsolete verb snot was once used for ‘put out a candle’ as well as ‘blow one’s nose’ suggests that this snuff too may ultimately have connections with the inner workings of the nose (possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus), and with the base *snuf-. Snuff it ‘die’ is first recorded in the late 19th century.
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