September 15, 2005

Ethical nostrils

A few days ago, I quoted a passage from Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men:

"And I wouldn't know the truth this minute if that woman right there --" and he pointed down at Sadie --- "if that woman right there --"
I nudged Sadie and said, "Sister, you are out of a job."
"-- if that fine woman right there hadn't been honest enough and decent enough to tell the foul truth which stinks in the nostrils of the Most High!"

Readers will recognize the last part as another one of those pieces of partly prefabricated rhetoric, something like "<bad smell> in the nostrils of <moral authority>". (How do we know this? A good question, to be answered another time...) So I spent a few minutes trying to find the source -- web search makes it easy to indulge in a little one-hour scholarship over morning coffee -- but so far, all I've learned is that this phrase has been around since the early 17th century, and seems always to have been metaphorical rather than literal.

The history first. The earliest citation in the OED is

1771 E. BURKE Speech Middlesex Election in Wks. X. 65 Our judgments stink in the nostrils of the people.

[Update: but as Jesse Sheidlower has pointed out to me, the OED has other examples of the figurative use of nostrils "with connotation of moral sensitivity", though involving slightly different phrasal patterns, going back to 1596:

1596 F. SABIE Adams Complaint 144 Realmes full of errors, mountaines huge of shrewdnes. The height whereof vnto his throne ascended, And with their stench his nostrils sore offended.


The earliest example I could find quickly of the specific pattern <bad smell> in the nostrils of <moral authority> was from Lancelot Andrews, Scala Coeli. Nineteene Sermons Concerning Prayer, which was "Printed by N. O. for Francis Burton, dwelling in Pauls Church-yard, at the signe of the Greene Dragon, 1611":

Euen so the wicked imaginations, and vnchast thoughts of our heartes, which yeeld a stinking smell in the nostrils of God, are sweetned by no other meanes then by prayer...

There are many examples through the middle of the 17th century, for instance from Benjamin Keach's 1689 description of ethnic cleansing in Distressed Sion Relieved, The Tryal and Condemnation of Mystery Babylon, the Great Whore:

4005 Those horrid tortures, which my Brethren say
4006 She exercis'd on them, the same I may
4007 Affirm t'have suffer'd, by the instigation
4008 Of this vile Strumpet, whose abomination
4009 Stinks in the Nostrils of each civil Nation,
4010 Her cursed Priests, when first they did begin
4011 Our Massacre, proclaim'd, it was a sin
4012 Unpardonable, if they durst to give
4013 Quarter, or our necessities relieve;
4014 Some they stript naked, and then made them go
4015 Through Bogs and Mountains, in the Frost and Snow,
4016 Men, Women, Children, then were butchered,
4017 And all that spake our Language punished;
4018 The very Cattel, if of English breed,
4019 They slasht and mangled that they could not feed.

Other mid-17th-century examples include John Bunyan in 1685:

Their rising, is called the resurrection of the unjust, and so they at that day will appear, and will more stink in the nostrils of God, and all the heavenly hosts, than if they had the most irksome plague-sores in the world running on them.

and Cosmo Manuche in 1652:

Rigg. How rank a Traytor smells.
Albin. Very true; especially, in the nostrils of the righteous.

The phrase has a biblical sort of ring, but there is no source for it in the King James version of the bible, nor could I find it in earlier translations like Wycliffe and Coverdale (and yes, I knew to search for "nostrels"). There are a number of examples in more recent translations such as the 1973 New International Version for Isaiah 65:5

Yet they say to each other, `Don't come too close or you will defile me! I am holier than you!' They are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.

which the 1611 KJV renders as

which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.

and the 1587 Geneva bible has as

Which say, Stand apart, come not nere to me: for I am holier then thou: these are a smoke in my wrath & a fire that burneth all the day.

Whatever the source, there are plenty of examples on the web of this pattern "<bad smell> in the nostrils of <moral authority>". The unpleasant odor is always a metaphor for ethical disgust:

According to this biblical school of thought, Hurricane Katrina was sent to wipe away the stench in the nostrils of God.
Sanctimony stinks in the nostrils of the Lord.
And, no matter which it is, the result is inevitably death in our life (death in this connotation means barrenness, fruitlessness, spiritual poverty) which is a stench in the nostrils of God; it is hostile to God.
This bestiality, worse than anything in recent history, stinks in the nostrils of Heaven.
At times, I must be a stench in the nostrils of my heavenly Father.
He demanded complete separation of church and state as he declared that "forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God."
...a city whose putrefying iniquity became such a stench in the nostrils of the righteous God that love, made hopeless by their plight, gave place to wrath...
Gay marriage stinks in the nostrils of God.
I believe the enslavement of any human beings, as a race, is a stench in the nostrils of the Great Creator of man.
I submit to you that this is obscenity and it stinks in the nostrils of a holy and compassionate Cod [sic].

The "sin smells bad" metaphor is expected when the nostrils are divine -- people don't need to invoke heavenly olfaction to persuade others that it's unpleasant to be downwind of a pig farm on a warm day. However, the nostrils are not always divine -- as in the Keach and Burke quotes, they often belong to a group of humans to whom the writer attributes collective moral authority:

They stink in the nostrils of every honest man and woman.
Gentlemen, it is time that this stench in the nostrils of all decent persons in the West is buried.
The hypocrisy of the U.S. government, which proclaims that it is leading a fight against world terrorism, became a stench in the nostrils of Latin American public opinion.
Franklin [...] spoke of a war in which the colony's proprietors including Penn would be "gibbeted up to rot and stink in the Nostrils of Posterity."
Kameny called the government’s anti-homosexual policies "a stench in the nostrils of decent people."
...led even an English Conservative newspaper, the London Times, to declare that “the name of an Irish landlord stinks in the nostrils of Christendom”.
Their régime was a stench in the nostrils of every respectable man, North or South.
He had been the terror of the lawless element in Arizona, and with the Earps was the only man brave enough to face the bloodthirsty crowd which has made the name of Arizona a stench in the nostrils of decent men.
Whiggism was putrescent in the nostrils of the nation ...

Other secular substitutions in the frame "<bad smell> in the nostrils of ___" include Civilization, the community of Musselburgh, honest men, the common people to whose elevation they had dedicated their lives, the political class, the whole world professing any sort of pretensions to Christianity, the court, thinking men of all the civilized nations of the earth, swing voters, civilized governance, the American people, and so forth.

I don't find examples where the smell is a literal odor, or where the nostrils belong to a specific individual. These would be things like

? The decaying corpses stink in the nostrils of the city's inhabitants.
? His behavior was a stench in the nostrils of his aunt Mildred.

There are a couple of examples like the second one in some recent bible translations:

2 Samuel 10:6 in the 1973 NIV

When the Ammonites realized that they had become a stench in David's nostrils, they hired twenty thousand Aramean foot soldiers from Beth Rehob and Zobah, as well as the king of Maacah with a thousand men, and also twelve thousand men from Tob.

But the phrasing "in David's nostrils" is a recent introduction:

Wycliffe 1395: Sotheli the sones of Amon sien, that thei hadden do wrong to Dauid, and thei senten, and hiriden bi meede Roob of Sirye, and Soba of Sirie, twenti thousynde of foot men, and of kyng Maacha, a thousynde men, and of Istob twelue thousynde of men.
Coverdale 1535: Whan the childre of Ammon sawe that they stynked in the sighte of Dauid, they sent and hyred the Sirians of the house of Rehob, and the Sirians at Zoba euen twentye thousande fote men, and from the kynge of Maecha a thousande men, and from Istob twolue thousande men.
Geneva 1587: And when the children of Ammon sawe that they stanke in the sight of Dauid, the children of Ammon sent and hired the Aramites of the house of Rehob, and the Aramites of Zoba, twentie thousande footemen, and of King Maacah a thousand men, and of Ish-tob twelue thousande men.
KJV 1611: And when the children of Ammon saw that they stanke before Dauid, the children of Ammon sent, and hired the Syrians of Beth-Rehob, and the Syrians of Zoba, twentie thousand footmen, and of king Maacah, a thousand men, and of Ishtob twelue thousand men.

The bad-smell metaphor is there from 1535 onwards, but the phrasing is not: the Ammonites "stynked in the sighte of Dauid" or "stanke before Dauid", not in his nostrils.

Another passage involves Pharaoh's sense of smell, though it is located in his eyes by King James' translators:

Exodus 5.21, King James version:

18 Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
19 And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish aught from your bricks of your daily task.
20 And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:
21 and they said unto them, The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savor to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.

Other English versions have "made us a stench to Pharaoh", "made us odious in Pharaoh's sight", "made us stink before Pharaoh", "made us a rotten stench to be detested by Pharaoh", "getting us into this terrible situation with Pharaoh", "made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh", "making the king and his officials hate us", "made us abhorrent in the sight of Pharaoh", "caused our fragrance to stink in the eyes of Pharaoh", "made our odour to stink in the eyes of Pharaoh", "caused us to be hated by Pharaoh", "made us reek in front of Pharaoh", "We are like a very bad smell to Pharaoh"...

So I've finished my second cup of coffee without finding the answer. 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?

[Update 9/18/2005: Edward Cook at Ralph the Sacred River finds some relevant (though not exact) quotation in the late-16th-century Marpelate tracts; he agrees in being surprised by the lack of a clear biblical source for the "<bad smell> in the nostrils of <moral authority>" phrasal pattern:

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).


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 15, 2005 07:22 AM