Up to Par / Up to Snuff

But if I put this bag on my head, I am invisible. I know because nobody talks to me when I do.

Dear Word Detective:  I would like to know the origin of “up to par” and “up to snuff.”  In golf being over par is not a good thing, so being “up” to it should not be a good thing.  “Up to snuff” makes no sense to me as a positive term other than snuff goes up the nose. — John N. Pierre.

Hmm.  I was under the impression that we weren’t supposed to stick things up our noses.  I recall that lesson as one of the few things I learned in third grade, right up there with the indigestibility of chalk and the fact that tying a towel around one’s neck does not confer the ability to fly.  It’s really a miracle that some of us ever make it to puberty, isn’t it?

Onward.  That’s a good question.  “Up to par” and “up to snuff” mean roughly the same thing, and are both used to describe someone or something that meets a certain common standard of sufficiency or well-being.  Both of them also date back to the 19th century, although “up to par” is the more recent of the two, first appearing nearly 80 years after “up to snuff.”

“Snuff” is, of course, powdered tobacco, usually inhaled through the nose.  Snuff has been in use since tobacco was first cultivated, and was extremely popular in Europe and America from the 16th through the 19th centuries.  The word “snuff” in this sense is shortened from the Dutch word for the stuff, “snuftabak,” obviously related to “to snuff” meaning “to draw in through the nose,” a word formed in imitation of the sound of the action itself.  Etymologists are not sure if “snuff” in the sense of “to extinguish a candle” (or, in slang, “to kill”) is related to this sniffling “snuff.”

The best clue to the logic behind “up to snuff” comes from the fact that when the phrase first appeared in the early 19th century, it didn’t mean simply “meeting a standard” as it does today.  It meant “shrewd, sharp, sophisticated and not easily deceived,” and it was applied to people who were wise to the ways of the world.  Since snuff was, at that time, largely a habit of adult men of comfortable means (it wasn’t cheap), it seems reasonable to assume that “up to snuff” meant “the sort of person who appreciates and uses snuff,” i.e., a worldly man.  It’s also possible that the original sense was of a man who was sophisticated enough to tell high-quality snuff from the cheap stuff.  The use of “up to snuff” to mean “meeting a common standard” arose later in the 19th century.

“Up to par” doesn’t actually have anything to do with golf.  “Par” (from the Latin “par,” meaning “equal”) was originally, at the end of the 16th century, a term in economics denoting the value of one currency in terms of another.  By the mid-18th century, “par” had taken on the broader meaning of “an average or expected amount or condition,” which gave us such idioms as “above par,” “under par” and, by the late 19th century, “up to par,” meaning “meeting the expected standard.”

The same period saw the first use of “par” to mean the maximum number of strokes a good golf player should need for a particular hole or the entire course.  Of course, given the rules of golf, the whole point is to avoid finding yourself “up to par,” especially when you’re only halfway through the course.  At that point, the only thing to do is tie a towel around your neck and hope for the best.

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