My friend Greg has been going through a lot, and I’ve noticed that when he’s stressed out, his language gets saltier. Twice of late, he has said, “Don’t blow smoke up my ass,” and, another time, “Listen to me, I’m not blowing smoke up your ass.”
Now I like coarse turns of phrase, but, even with my childhood training as an actor, I can’t quite pull them off without sounding self-conscious, as if I’m just pretending to be tough. Greg is more convincing—although not entirely so. The three times he used his new-favorite expression, in the course of what was an otherwise heavy conversation, I was amusingly distracted. Where, I wondered, did the expression come from? Like the phrase “When the shit hits the fan,” you really do not want to picture it literally.
Later, I did some research. Blowing smoke was something that 19th-century stage magicians did to conceal their moves. So the phrase “don’t blow smoke” meant “don’t deceive me.” According to blogosphere chatter, the “up my ass” part was incorporated into the expression in the 1950s for no other reason than that butts are inherently funny and show up in many phrases: “smart ass,” “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” and “Take your money and shove it up your ass.”
A more interesting explanation, given by an anonymous poster to a word-phrase message board, ties the expression to the 18th-century practice of blowing smoke into the butts of dead people to ascertain that they were really dead before they were buried.
“One of the pipes of this remarkable apparatus was thrust into the anus of the apparently dead person; the other was connected, by way of a powerful bellows, to a large furnace full of tobacco,” writes Jan Bondeseson in his scholarly book Buried Alive, The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. “Such enemas of tobacco smoke were thought to be very beneficial and were used to try to revive not only people presumed dead but also drowned or unconscious individuals… Modern science has discerned no physiological rationale for their use, except the pain and indignity of having a blunt instrument violently thrust up one’s rear passage must have had some restorative effect.”
So there you have it. In the movie “Meet Joe Black,” Anthony Hopkins says, “Don’t blow smoke up my ass, it will ruin my autopsy.”