Snuff, the powdered, snort-able tobacco, has long been a societal fixture in the UK and U.S. (more so back in the day than today). Because of its prevalence, a particular phrase sprung up around the word that still exists to this day. But what does “up to snuff” mean, exactly?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines being “up to snuff” as “knowing, sharp, not easily deceived,” and “up to the required or usual standard.” The connection between pulverized tobacco & being savvy or meeting requirements, however, isn’t exactly clear. One suggestion is that it may originally have had more to do with snuff’s main user demographic: wealthy men “who’d be able to appreciate the quality of snuff & distinguish between examples of different value.”
What we do know is that “up to snuff” had entered the British lexicon by 1807, when it appeared in a London newspaper (the earliest known written mention of the phrase, according to Merriam-Webster). Only fragments of the passage are legible, but in it a man “asked a young lady if she would have a pinch of snuff, and … in the negative, he facetiously observed … I suppose you are up to snuff.”
As far as how the phrase evolved to describe someone/something that meets standards, there’s no clear answer. Though it makes sense that someone considered smart would also be generally regarded as a person of merit.
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