I've long understood the phrase "blowing smoke up someone's arse" to mean lying.

I've since seen many online discussions and articles which seem to regard it to mean insincere flattery.

Have I been wrong all this time? Or is the phrase used with both meanings? Perhaps it's a US/UK thing?

(Most of the discussions I've seen are in the context of the phrase's purported origins in a quasi-medical practice used either to revive drowning victims or to test for signs of life.)

  • Quasi being the understated operative prefix here. – deadrat Dec 9 '16 at 22:02
  • Drowning? Signs of life? Someone's blowing smoke up your ass. – Mitch Dec 9 '16 at 23:42

Reference-work coverage of the expression

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) has this entry for the phrase "blow smoke":

blow smoke To boast, to brag, to exaggerate. Implying that the speaker is having a pleasant dream, as induced by by smoking opium.

In Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) the extension "up [someone's] ass" joins the party:

blow smoke 1 v phr by 1940s To boast; brag; exaggerate: ...four cops sitting around drinking, blowing smoke, and kidding—Lawrence Sanders 2 v phr (also blow smoke up someone's ass or blow heat) by 1940s To mislead; confuse; deceive: Anybody who tells you different's just blowing smoke up your ass—George V Higgins 3 v phr by 1940s To flatter; =SWEET-TALK: Do you mean it or are you just blowing smoke—comic strip "Sally Forth" 4 v phr by 1930s To smoke marijuana or hashish: Everybody blew smoke there. You could buy hash—New Yorker {fr both the presumed effects of smoking opium and the confusing and concealing effect of making a smokescreen}

All four of the Chapman & Kipfer definitions work with "blow smoke" by itself. The optional addition of "up [someone's] ass" to "blow smoke" in the definition 2 sense of the phrase but not to any of the others strongly suggests that the extra wording serves as an insulting intensifier rather than representing a phrase grounded in some sort of medical or physiological procedure.

However, some books take the opposite view, asserting that "blow smoke up [someone's] ass" refers to a procedure once practiced in the premodern era of medicine. Thus, for example, Eric Burns, The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco (2007) has this:

More bizarrely, the Aztecs and Incas were among those who practiced the rectal application of tobacco smoke. Where they got the idea, no one can say. Why anyone would endure such a treatment is an even greater puzzle.Nor can he who did the applying have been eager for the business. The Jivaros of eastern Ecuador even tended to their children in this manner, rolling them over onto their sides and anally inserting a syringe that was made of a hen's bladder.

To blow smoke up one's ass. Today it means to compliment in a crude and obvious manner; in the past it meant to cure in a manner even more crude.

As civilization advanced, the use of tobacco enemas declined. The latter, in fact, seems almost a prerequisite to the former. But for some reason, tobacco enemas made a comeback in eighteenth century Europe, where they were utilized "to resuscitate people in a state of suspended animation, or apparently droned persons."

That unusual therapy is all very well—or perhaps not—but its existence among some pre-Columbian peoples of the Western Hemisphere and some post-Columbian peoples of eighteenth-century Europe does little to explain why the slang expression "blow smoke up [someone's] ass" emerged only in the 1940s or later. My guess is that the historical practice is only coincidentally related to the modern expression.

But if the weird medical practice isn't the source of the slang term, what is? I suspect that the answer is amplification: sometimes a slang term that has been around for a while acquires new cachet thanks to a snappy word replacement or an edgier extension. But if this simply a case of amplification, a couple of other phenomena are likely: (1) we might see alternative extended versions of "blow smoke"—especially in the period before "blow smoke up [someone's] ass" comes into frequent use—that use less startling words than "ass"; and (2) we ought to see "blow smoke up [someone's] ass" being used not just for "blowing smoke" definition 2 above, but for definitions 1 and 3 as well.

Two slang glossaries mention "blow smoke up [someone's] ass" earlier than Chapman & Kipfer. First from Ken Weaver, Texas Crude (1984):

To blow smoke up someone's ass. To deceive someone. "I don't care what he told you; he's blowing smoke up your ass."

And from Pamela Munro, Slang U. (1991) has this entry:

blow smoke up (someone's) ass to try to deceive or impress (someone) | I was late because I had a flat tire, but my dad thought I was just blowing smoke up his ass.

Munro's definition conflates Chapman & Kipfer's definitions 1 and 2. And definition 3 ("flatter, sweet-talk") is evidently the sense of the phrase as used in TV Guide (1997):

"This is all rather amusing, considering I came to this country with 50 bucks in my pocket says the German-born [Eric] Braeden, who arrived in 1959 and took work as a cattle driver. The recent attention from moviemakers isn't turning his head. "One must keep these things in perspective," Braeden notes. "I have to laugh at these young punks who come onto Y&R, suddenly see themselves on the cover of a magazine, and, bingo, they think they've made it. I tell them 'You must concentrate on what's important: your craft.' The most difficult part of acting is dealing with success and those who will blow smoke up your butt."


Database search results

The earliest match in a n Elephind search that explicitly identifies someone's ass as the conduit for blown smoke (in a slang sense) is from John Anderson, "Billie Carr: The 'Godmother' of Local Liberal Politics," in the [Houston, Texas] Rice Thresher (June 26 1975), the student newspaper at Rice University in Houston:

The phone rang and Billie Carr asked us to turn off the tape recorder. Some intent and aspiring liberal politico was calling. Would she support him? Hell, yes; but, "I don't want to blow smoke up your butt. You're going to lose, you just are. If you get 40% of the vote, well, that's a victory." They talked for maybe fifteen minutes.

In "It Is Up to the Senate to Save the Hatch Act" from the Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted in the Congressional Record, volume 122, part 4 (1976) [combined snippets]:

Since its inception, the Hatch Act and its principle [which "prohibits federal civil servants from managing or running in partisan political campaigns"] have been attacked vigorously. The strongest current force arrayed against it is the labor movement—which long has argued that the Hatch Act interferes with federal employes' freedom of freedom of speech and association.

Led on by that spurious cry—and by the inviting prospect of instant recruitment of 3 million political patronage workers—the House of Representatives last October passed a bill , H.R. 8617, which would end the Hatch Act protections. The bill's proponents argue mightily that it Is not really a repeal of the Hatch Act at all, but a sort of benevolent reform measure which would give affected civil servants the freedom to "express themselves" politically, while relying on new "prohibitions" against political exploitation.

Nonsense. H.R. 8617 would, purely and simply, make federal civil servants direct political participants for the first time in more than 35 years. And anyone who argues that once it is permissible for them to politic, money-raise and otherwise labor in the electioneering vineyards that somehow their bosses won't ask them to–well, anyone who argues that to you is blowing smoke up your leg.

Even earlier, from "Center of Gravity," in the Saturday Evening Post (1964), reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1965 [combined snippets]:

"Aw, you ought not to have no trouble on that account. Big as you are in the county."

"Big as I am," the sheriff said, "I can't get the money so's I can deputize another three-four men."

"Yet and still, you the high sherrif, Leroy. I ain't aimin' to blow smoke up your nose. Just statin' a fact is all."

"I appreciate you mean rightly," the sheriff said. "Tell you what, Andy. You come up and see me tomorrow, or call me on the phone, one."

One fairly early match suggest a euphemism. From Rick Eilert, For Self and Country (1984):

"Yeah, Miss Altman, Rick's right. That jerk was moving my shoulder around like it was brnad-new, and look at Rick's face and hand. He didn't get those cuts from constructive criticism. He was abused and taunted. Honest, Miss Altman, that Shultz is a dead man, and I'm not just blowing smoke up your skirt." When he realized what he had said he got flustered. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I just got carried away. I'd never blow smoke up your skirt ... I mean, I'd love to ... oh, hell look what I've done," Steve said shyly.


Early complications

But then there is this item from "Thursday's Daily," in the [Prescott] Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner (March 14, 1894):

Wonder what kind of a game they are trying to play with Register H. D. Ross in Phenix. The Gazette has deemed it necessary to state that "it is useless to attempt to blow smoke up his spinal column." That paper has probably tried it and made a failure of it.

This suggests some sort of metaphor for enlivening or reviving someone who is conspicuously inert.

A somewhat similar usage reported in South Africa (and published in Australia) occurs in 1903. From "The Cape 'Ragging' Case: A Court-Martial: On Seven Army Officers: Sensational Disclosures," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Evening News (July 16, 1903):

He [Stanford, the victim] was put into the fountain, water was thrown over him, the clothes which he had upon him were saturated with water, and he was taken back in that condition to the prisoner' Prior's sitting-room. There the whole of his clothes were stripped off him by force, and he was left absolutely naked in the room. After some little time, a dressing-gown was obtained, and put upon him, By that time he had become so faint and exhausted that measures were resorted to, such as blowing smoke up his nose, and pouring brandy down his throat, to restore him.

This is clearly a literal use of "blow smoke," but its reference to blowing smoke in order to revive someone may be more closely related logically to the metaphorical sense of "blow smoke up his spinal column" in the 1897 example from Arizona than to the later metaphorical use of "blow smoke" to mean "boast," "deceive," or "flatter."

Ultimately, I don't know what to make of these two isolated instances from 1894 and 1902. They present "blowing smoke" (literally or figuratively) to rouse someone as an idea that readers would not find startling or necessary to have explained to them. But on the other hand, I haven't found the sort of recorded continuity in usage or meaning that might convincingly connect the earliest uses with the ones that Dictionary of American Slang, third edition, says began to occur in the 1940s.

Blow smoke (up someone's arse) is used for both related meaning of lying and exaggerating (insincere flattering):

To blow smoke:

  • To boast; brag; exaggerate : copssitting around drinking, blowing smoke, and kidding (1940s+)
  • (also blow smoke up someone's ass or blow heat) To mislead; confuse; deceive : Anybody who tells you different's just blowing smoke up your ass (1940s+)

Dictionary.com

The following source traces its origin and suggest that the term smoke has long been associated with deception and exaggeration:

To blow smoke up someone's arse:

  • Aside from paying a false compliment, the phrase is often taken to simply mean to lie, but, sadly, it’s unlikely to have originated with tobacco enemas.

  • ‘Smoke’ is the key word, with its long association with deception in English and American slang. Stage magicians do it all with ‘smoke and mirrors’ – and at various times and places, to blow smoke, or blow smoke in someone’s face could mean to lie or to boast. To smoke someone could also mean to mock them, and also to expose a lie.

(www.historyextra.com)

  • Is "incensere" a typo or an incense/insincere smoke pun? – Simon Dec 9 '16 at 22:53

protected by tchrist Dec 28 '16 at 22:30

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