- Kirsten Bell
The snot that we forgot: Part I
This was originally going to be a fairly short piece, but it turns out that I have more to say on the topic of snot than I assumed at the outset. In the interests of keeping it to a manageable length, I have therefore broken it up into two interconnected pieces.
‘Distillers looking into their own business’ by Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (public domain)
‘You think my nose is runny? It’s snot’. When I was seven years old, I thought this joke was the height of wit.1 Based on the number of snot books aimed at kids (It’s Snot Fair! The Snots! The Things You Can Do with Snot! Snot Soup!), publishers are well aware of children’s fascination with the substance and have mined it in every conceivable form. In fact, the volume of snot stories is so great that it appears to contain distinct sub-genres. Yet, while children find snot both fascinating and hilarious, for the rest of us, snot is disgusting. Indeed, snot is something that we generally pretend we don’t have, except when we have a cold or flu and are forcibly confronted with its existence.
So, is the general adult distaste for snot universal? Sadly, this is a topic that few anthropologists have seen fit to study. The primary exception is Napoleon Chagnon’s book Yanomamö, based on his fieldwork in an Amazonian society in Venezuela. Required reading for anthropology students when I was an undergraduate in Australia in the mid-1990s, snot features prominently in the book – presumably because it was the most prominent output of a hallucinogenic drug frequently snorted by the Yanomamö.
Perhaps one of the most memorable first fieldwork encounters ever outlined in an ethnography, Chagnon describes his introduction to the Yanomamö as follows,
‘I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins’.
Whilst taking the drug, men usually let the mucus run freely from their nostrils – when, that is, they weren’t wiping it on whatever nearby surface was available. Unhappily for Chagnon, this included the anthropologist himself, as he was soon subjected to a detailed physical inspection by the men who confronted him on his arrival in the village. He writes, ‘The men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets’. In his memoir he later reflected, ‘I had never seen so much green snot before then. Not many anthropologists spend their first day this way. If they did, there would be very few applicants to graduate programs in anthropology’.
When I was doing fieldwork in South Korea in the late 1990s, the only times I remember being truly revolted likewise revolved around snot. This is a little ironic because guides to Korean culture invariably tell you to be careful about blowing your nose in public, because it’s considered rude.2 Given these norms, I was surprised to occasionally see old men deal with the problem of snot removal by clasping the top of their nostrils between their thumb and forefinger and then blowing snot out forcefully so that it shot onto the ground in a stream.3
The first time I witnessed it, I was shocked and appalled. Although I’m pretty sure it stretched the bounds of polite behaviour, and the man did it in full view of many people, no one visibly reacted to it (well, except for my own audible gasp of horror). I suspect that this is because snot removal in this fashion is more akin to spitting, a practice ubiquitous amongst Korean men when I lived there.4 However, South Koreans, in their turn, were disgusted by the idea of westerners carrying around used handkerchiefs: the place for snot was not one’s pocket.
These examples suggest that contemporary western attitudes towards snot are far from universal. However, they are also relatively recent – at least based on the work of the German sociologist Norbert Elias. In his masterpiece The Civilizing Process, Elias suggested that radical changes in social standards occurred in Europe between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the growing European preoccupation with ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ behaviour. In particular, there was an expanding threshold of repugnance (i.e., feelings of shame and embarrassment) around natural bodily functions such as farting, burping, defecating, and, most significantly for our current purposes, blowing one’s nose.
According to Elias, in the thirteenth century, people blew their nose into their hands. Because this was standard, etiquette focused primarily on contexts where the practice might cause problems: namely, while eating. The goal, then, was to ensure that the snot didn’t fall on food, and people were counselled that when the urge to blow their nose came upon them, ‘turn round so that nothing falls on the table’. By the fifteenth century, one’s fingers were still the primary means of catching snot, but the rules had tightened somewhat, with people given pearls of wisdom like: ‘Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat’ and ‘It is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth’.
By the sixteenth century, the appearance of the handkerchief had started to change norms around nose blowing. While a sign of immense wealth (Henry IV possessed five of them), handkerchiefs had started to become widely used in courtly circles. Thus, blowing one’s nose on one’s hands or clothing was now an indication of a lack of sophistication. Etiquette guides warned: ‘To blow your nose on your hat or clothing is rustic, and to do so with the arm or elbow befits a tradesman; nor is it much more polite to use the hand, if you immediately smear the snot on your garment. It is proper to wipe the nostrils with a handkerchief, and to do this while turning away, if more honourable people are present’.
Notice that using one’s hand or one’s clothing to catch snot were treated the same way during this time;5 the disgust we now associate with touching snot had not yet appeared. However, examining one’s snot was now considered bad form. As one etiquette guide counselled: ‘Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head’.6
By the seventeenth century, the distaste for snot had started to take hold. One seventeenth century guide to table etiquette noted, ‘to blow your nose openly into your handkerchief, without concealing yourself with your serviette… are filthy habits fit to make everyone’s gorge rise’. This prescription became even stronger in the eighteenth century, where handkerchiefs had now become commonplace amongst people of all social classes who lay claim to ‘good’ manners. However, the practice of using one’s fingers to catch snot was still widespread enough that etiquette books felt the need to warn against it. ‘Take good care not to blow your nose with your fingers or on your sleeve like children’ one guide warned; ‘use your handkerchief and do not look into it afterwards’.
As Elias illustrates, the cultural shifts in attitudes towards nose blowing demonstrate the ways in which snot became transformed from a natural and neutral fact of life (albeit one that occasionally required care in handling), to something distasteful and repugnant that needed to be hidden from the view of others and, indeed, oneself. The constant injunctions not to dwell on one’s secretions are telling in this respect, although Elias suggests that they simultaneously point to the deep fascination our bodily excretions have always held for us – something we see very clearly in children’s delight in them, and publishers’ willingness to pander to the fixation.
Although he doesn’t develop the point, Elias also alludes to the connection between morals and hygiene that developed over time in perceptions of snot. Increasingly, snot became seen as something unhygienic in a simultaneously moral and physical sense. This is particularly evident from the nineteenth century, when the term ‘snot’ started to be used to refer to a despicable person as well as to nasal mucus itself.
We see these dual meanings invoked explicitly in the nineteenth-century cartoon ‘Three distillers looking into their own business’ reproduced at the top of the article.7 A satiric commentary on the underground distribution of gin in London, the snot spilling out of the distillers’ noses and the saliva streaming out of their mouths serves to emphasise the dubious quality of this gin, which was frequently flavoured with turpentine and other unsavoury products, along with the despicable qualities of the men who produced it. Snot had now officially become unclean in both a physical and moral sense.
1 I also thought that The Harper Valley PTA was the funniest movie ever. A Barbara Eden vehicle (she of I Dream of Jeannie fame), it was inspired by a hit country song of the same name.* Well, I managed to track it down again years later when I worked at a video shop, and guess what? It’s snot. *Yep, back before they were turning Disney rides into films, they were turning songs into them. If you’re curious about the film, save yourself some time and just listen to the song, which gives you the key plot points in three minutes.
2 Etiquette around nose blowing and sniffing is basically the reverse of what’s considered polite in western contexts, where it’s considered better form to blow one’s nose than to sniff repeatedly.
3 There’s actually a term for this: ‘snot rocket’, although the Korean version involved both nostrils simultaneously, rather than one.
4 The pavement was covered in phlegm, especially in winter. According to reports on Quora, not much has changed over the past two decades in that respect.
5 Actually, if anything, using the hand was marginally more polite. I would speculate that this may have been because hands were more frequently (or at least easily) washed than clothes, especially given that dried snot, having a similar consistency to dried glue, doesn’t just come off with a vigorous brushing.
6 As someone who has never blown my nose without inspecting the contents in the tissue, it’s clear that I would have been considered uncouth, even by sixteenth century standards.
7 I suspect that this cartoon would be considered too disgusting for contemporary sensibilities to be published today, suggesting that our attitudes towards snot have continued to (ahem) harden* over the past century. *Making this a perfect segue into Part II, which focuses on, you guessed it, boogers.