Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Redolent Metaphor

Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses the expression "to stink in the nostrils" as a metaphor for hatred, revulsion, or disapproval. After two cups of coffee, he had still not tracked down an "authoritative model" for it.

Did this expression emerge into common use during the 17th century, and stay in the phrasal vocabulary of the English language to this day, without any authoritative model at all?

I was able to find at least one source before the 17th century: One of the Marprelate tracts (1589) ("for feare of smelling in the nostrels of her Maiestie & the State") and possibly a century earlier in the Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry : compiled for the instruction of his daughters : translated from the original French into English in the reign of Henry VI, 1484:

  • the synne of lechery stinkithe afore God and his aungeles
  • the unlefull synne of lecherye, the whiche stinkithe and crompithe vnto heuene

—although there are no "nostrils" in that text.

But neither one of these texts is authoritative in the way that Liberman would like. I could have sworn that this expression was Biblical, but as Liberman shows, there is no exact model in the early English translations (although Hebrew be'ash, hib'ish "to stink, cause to stink" = to incur dislike, is well known).

Unless the metaphor is a natural evolution from Biblical models, I'm also stumped for an "authoritative model," unless the French original of the Book of the Knight points to a continental source. Is there any classical or medieval scholar out there who can trace this back into French or Latin literature?

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