27 January 2016


This tweet nosed its way onto the @HaggardHawks feed yesterday:

And, in response to a quick query tagged onto it…

…here’s a quick history of nose-wiping—or rather, here’s a quick explanation of why nose-wipe means “to cheat someone”.

In this contextnose-wipe dates back to the early seventeenth century, but an all but identical expression, to wipe someone’s nose, had been in use in English since the late 1500s. Likewise, to play with someone’s nose was an Elizabethan expression meaning “to ridicule someone” or, as the OED eloquently puts, “to make a game of someone”.

Both phrases probably have their roots in Latin, which it’s worth knowing had a specific word for the process of wiping your nose: emungere. That’s an etymological relative of mucus, as well being the origin of a handful of unfamiliar and unsavoury English words like emunctory (“having the function of conveying waste”), emunction (“the act of clearing the bodily passages”), and emunct, a seventeenth century adjective meaning “keen” or “acute” (probably derived from blowing your nose to improve your sense of smell).

In Latin, however, the verb emungere could also be used in a figurative sense, to mean “to cheat” or “deceive”, and in particular “to cheat someone of their money”. It’s from there that the English nose-wipe in the tweet above eventually came from—but why or how did “wiping your nose” come to have lying, swindling connotations?

Well, the clue probably lies in the adjective emunct above: wiping or blowing your nose improves your sense of smell, making it keener or more acute (especially if you’re snottering). The comic writers of Ancient Rome are thought to have picked up on this implication and played on it, using nose-wiped to mean “taken advantage of” or “duped” in the sense that “wiping someone’s nose” would make them keener, more alert—and so less likely to be duped a second time. To have wiped someone’s nose ultimately meant that you had somehow taken advantage of them, but that they had learnt from their costly mistake and were now keen not to fall for the same trick twice…

1 comment:
  1. That sounds terribly unconvincing, as most fools never learn wisdom. Is this just the pet theory of an obscure 19th-century editor of Horace? There is a corresponding Greek word that may be seen at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=a%29pomu%2Fssein&la=greek&can=a%29pomu%2Fssein0&prior=emuncti#lexicon. Isn't it more likely to be closer to the English metaphor in 'cleaned out'?