verb (used without object)

verb (used with object)

to perceive by or as by smelling: to sniff a scandal.
to inhale through the nose: to sniff the air.


Origin of sniff

1300–50; Middle English; back formation from snivel
Related formssniff·ing·ly, adverb Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for sniff

Contemporary Examples of sniff

Historical Examples of sniff

  • He did not speak, but he made an inarticulate noise between a grunt and a sniff.

  • He just stuck his nose into old Hagar's wikiup—and one sniff seemed to be about all he wanted.

    Good Indian

    B. M. Bower

  • He tried to sniff noses with her, but she retreated playfully and coyly.

    White Fang

    Jack London

  • Captain Zelotes' only comment was a sniff or snort, or combination of both.

    The Portygee

    Joseph Crosby Lincoln

  • Albert sniffed suspiciously, but no odor of alcohol rewarded the sniff.

    The Portygee

    Joseph Crosby Lincoln

British Dictionary definitions for sniff



to inhale through the nose, usually in short rapid audible inspirations, as for the purpose of identifying a scent, for clearing a congested nasal passage, or for taking a drug or intoxicating fumes
(when intr, often foll by at) to perceive or attempt to perceive (a smell) by inhaling through the nose


the act or sound of sniffing
a smell perceived by sniffing, esp a faint scent
Derived Formssniffing, noun, adjective

Word Origin for sniff

C14: probably related to snivelen to snivel
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for sniff

mid-14c., of imitative origin; possibly related to snyvelen (see snivel). As an expression of scorn or contempt from 1729. As a synonym for smell (v.) it dates from 1845. In reference to cocaine from 1925. Related: Sniffed; sniffing.


1767, from sniff (v.); the scornful sense is from 1859.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper