Don’t Snite in Public
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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