'Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass': The Literal Meaning/Medical Practice Behind The Idiom

By | July 12, 2020

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Royal Humane Society resuscitation apparatus. (Science Museum, London)

To "blow smoke" has had a few definitions over the years, and the end of the phrase (as well as its meaning) varies. You can "blow smoke in someone's face" to obfuscate a situation. You can "blow smoke" to lie or exaggerate the truth. Yet "blowing smoke up someone's ass" has a very specific meaning: to praise someone in a way that is not sincere. The first two meanings draw a clear reference to how smoke makes it difficult to see, but it's unclear at first blush how butts got involved. The answer, as it often does, lies in history.

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Dried, hanging tobacco. (Adobe)

Tobacco Enemas

When European settlers saw Native Americans in the New World use dried tobacco in their medicine, they brought the idea back home with them. In the 1700s, tobacco was thought to cure just about anything, from headaches to cancer to asthma to vague and indefinable "lady's problems." Come 1745, Richard Mead brought forward the idea of taking tobacco's panacean qualities all the way to drowning victims. Since such patients are not known for their great inhalations, however, another ... opening ... needed to be found. One of the first recorded demonstrations of a tobacco enema took place in 1746, when a man placed the mouthpiece of a pipe into the rectum of his half-drowned wife and blew down the other end. By all accounts, it worked, though it's unclear whether it was lifesaving smoke that brought her swiftly back to consciousness or simply the shock of a literal fire under her butt.