Wednesday 9 March 2011

The Handkerchief's Cargo

I have been suffering from a horrid cold for the last week. Every couple of minutes I put a vast, sail-like handkerchief to my face and imitate the mating cry of the victorious walrus. Here are some useful words for those similarly bemucused.

Snite was an Old English word that meant to blow your nose. It is now out of use, though its meaning is still obvious because its wordchild, snot, survives.

Emunction is a very posh form of nose-blowing indeed. I picked up the word from Beckett's Trilogy which has:

...certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss...

According to the OED, emunction is both obscure and obsolete; but it's awfully good for rhymes.You need to be careful, though, as it can technically mean the emptying of any bodily passage.

Gleimous means full of phlegm (but not, necessarily phlegmatic).

Finally, handkerchief is an oxymoron. Hand means hand (isn't etymology complicated?). Kerchief comes from Old French couvre-chief, which meant head-covering. So a handkerchief is a head-scarf for your hand (and nose).

Othello says of his handkerchief:

'Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy* which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

What a terrible thing it would have been if Desdemona had had a cold like mine.

*A medicinal liquid extracted from mummies. I may need some.


  1. Ah, this solves the puzzle I was wondering about the other day, which is why Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' has a handkerchief on her head. The kids were a bit bemused, too, and I wasn't able to help! Now I can ...

  2. I feel your pain. Thanks for this mornings smile.

  3. Jerry van Kooten9 March 2011 at 17:43

    Interesting... "Snite" sounds very much like the Dutch word "snuiten", which means "to blow", but only of one's nose. Same origin, I presume.

  4. Indeed, yes. The OED has this to say:

    Old English snýtan, = Old Norse and Icelandic snýta (Norwegian and Swedish snyta, Danish snyde), Old High German snûzan (Middle High German snûtzen, sniuzen, German schneuzen, schnäuzen), Middle Low German snûten (Low German snüten), Dutch snuiten (West Frisian snute): the stem snūt- is probably the same as that of snout n.1 Compare also snot n