Don’t Snite in Public

By Maeve Maddox

Every so often I renew my attempts to read Beowulf in the original Old English.

I suppose the pleasure I derive from the effort is similar to that of the geologist who goes fossil hunting. The delight springs from discovery. It’s fun to find, among the many strange ancient forms, a word that is still in use, with the same meaning, a thousand years later.

More often, though, a word that at first sight recalls a modern word turns out to be something quite different.

Take for example a word that frequently draws giggles from undergrads because of its similarity to our unlovely word snot.

snotor: adj., prudent, wise
snotor-lice: adv., wisely, prudently

Hrothgar, the king haunted by Grendel, is described as snotor. The adjective derives from the noun snyttru, “wisdom, discernment.”

Our word snot, on the other hand, meaning “nasal mucus,” existed in OE as gesnot. This word is related, reasonably enough, to the word snout, “the projecting nose of an animal.”

Besides its literal meaning, snot has figurative uses. The first recorded use of snot to mean “a despicable person” is 1809. The adjective, snotty, came along in 1870, with the meaning “impudent, curt, conceited.” Snotnose, to describe an immature or inexperienced person, was first recorded in 1941.

Old English had a verb snyttan, “to wipe or pick one’s nose.” As “snite,” it survives in dialect to refer to a particularly unpleasant way of blowing one’s nose. Maybe snite deserves a place in the standard language as a simpler way to talk about rhinotillexis. Mothers could admonish their children not to snite in public.

As for snotor, I guess that was just an excuse to write about snot.

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4 Responses to “Don’t Snite in Public”

  • Quinn

    I just love your posts.

    I wonder: snyttru, “wisdom, discernment,” is so close in spelling to “snyttan, ‘to wipe or pick one’s nose,'” from the same era.

    Could it be that it also conveyed a subtle air of “snootiness” (surely derived from the same general arena as snout) by those who used it?

    And just out of curiosity, is snotor pronounced snot-ǝr, snow-tǝr, snoot-ǝr, or even perhaps, snot-OR, snow-tOR, etc?

  • Kristi

    Not that this has anything to do with snot…
    but, wow! Someone else who’s interested in Beowulf in the original language! I bought a dual language edition when I was in, I think, 7th grade. It totally fascinated me! When I went to college as an English Lit major (I later switched to Linguistics), I was so excited to take one term of Old English followed by another term of Beowulf. This was in addition to a number of other classes I took in dead or dying languages. There’s just something magical and mysterious about reading myth and folklore in the original language. If there had been a major in Dead or Dying Languages, I totally would have gone for it. Thanks for reminding me of those good ol’ days! Maybe I need to dig those books out of my closet…

  • Philip Dragonetti

    I had previously mentioned that English is basically the German language spoken by the German tribe, the Angles, speaking “Anglish”—if you will.

    Todays article says:
    Our word snot, on the other hand,
    meaning “nasal mucus,” existed in OE as gesnot.”

    Noticed the ge ending of the word—which is a German ending indicating a past event..

    For instance , in German rained = geregnet where rain = regen.
    The ge indicates a past event.

    It is interesting to note how most of the towns in Britain have names of German origin. For instance, ham at the end of a town, like Birmingham, is a modfication of the German heim—like todays’ Mannheim.

    And a ton ending—as in Newton— is a modification of the German zaun—which means fence. So newton means New Fence.

    I also wondered why some Brits are so haughty about ‘their’ language—when they actually gave up their Celtic language and took on German and some French. 🙂

  • Maeve

    Quinn,
    The Old English o is long, so snotor=snow-tor.

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