Ancient Word of the Day: Snu

Ceci nest pas un nez - This is not a nose Rene Magritte

The smell sensing organ in animals is often described as a Snout and when someone is annoyed with you, you may get snubbed by them. Humans since prehistoric times have been sniffing, snuffling, snorting and sneezing and when we are blocked up, we have a lot of snot.

Pnew-, Snu and Fnuzo ‘to breathe, snort or sneeze’ are very ancient Proto-Indo-European words. DYK these words live on in the form of many nose-related terms and to express disdain?

Pnew/Snu/fnuzô: n. ‘to breathe; snort; sneeze’ from Proto-Germanic

Philosopher’s lamp, 1936 Rene Magritte

These nasal sounding words refer to the nose and the physical actions attached to it, but nose-based words are also historically linked to ways of expressing contempt for someone or something.

Originally, Snu- words in Proto-Germanic were pronounced as fn- or pn- in the earlier Proto-Indo-European language. This Pneu- root from PIE is still around in words like pneumatic and pneumonia.

Ceci nest pas un nez - This is not a nose Rene Magritte

Snu is onomatopoeic: it’s the jolting physical sound of snorting, sniffing, sneezing and snivelling that is captured in the word

There is an unbelievable amount of English words that have the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root of Snu. This archaic language has disappeared into the mists of time and was once spoken in Germany and Scandinavia.


Sneer comes from its original 16th century meaning of ‘a horse’s snort’. In the 17th Century, this became a contemptuous smile: sneere, meaning to scorn, in the North Frisian language.


The word Snort dates to the late 14th century and means “to snore.” A more modern meaning was acquired in the 16th century and snorting came to mean to express contempt. Later on in the 20th century it came to mean when one snorted cocaine and other substances.


Snot comes from the Old English word gesnot. Originally this term was a word for disapproval and then this changed to be about the physical symptom of mucinous nasal passages around 400 years ago.


Sneeze comes from the Old English word fneosan, meaning to snort or sneeze. This in turn comes from an older Proto-Germanic word for sneeze: fneusanan, from the Proto-Indo-European root pneu-.



Snivel relates to the old English word for snot or snyflan. To have a runny nose in medieval times was to have a snofl or nasal mucus. The Middle English word snivelard – meaning a contemptible sniveller – has sadly disappeared.


This is an unexpected word association with Snu-. Snack originally meant ‘to bite’ in the 14th century and acquired its more recent meaning of a small meal in the 19th century.

Here are some other Snu- words related to the nose/breathing and having a meaning of showing contempt:

Snicker/snarky/snort/sneer all come from the Snu root.

Snap: related to ‘Snavel’ in Middle Dutch.

Snitch and Snoop are also attached to the slang words for nose.

Snooty/cock a snoot: meaning to snub one’s nose up at something/someone.







I hope you enjoyed this journey into how your nose knows a lot more than you think. Let me know what you think below…

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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