By Anatoly Liberman
It is of course snuck that will interest us, but the origin of this illegitimate form should not be handled in isolation. We can begin with sneak, a verb whose recorded history is relatively short. The earliest examples with it turned up about four hundred years ago. Old English had snican “creep,” with short i, and this form could have yielded sneak, just as Middle English crike, from Scandinavian, yielded creek. But for snican to become sneak, it had to pass through the stage sneek (such is the phonetic regularity), which has not been attested. On the other hand, there was a Scandinavian verb snikja “hanker after; ask silently for food as a dog does,” which, if it were borrowed into English, would today have sounded as snick. Both snick and snicker ~ snigger are familiar words, but their etymology can be left for another occasion, for neither refers to longing or creeping. An Icelandic verb with a long vowel in the root also existed, as follows from the participle snikinn “covetous,” but such a verb would have become snike in Modern English. For all these reasons, dictionaries say that the origin of sneak is uncertain. Its etymology seems to be within reach, but at every step something goes wrong.
All such complications need not surprise us. Sneak “go stealthily, creep furtively” is an expressive word, and in such words both vowels and consonants often behave erratically: shorten, lengthen, change, and alternate in defiance of the rules valid for the rest of the vocabulary. The expressive nature of sneak has been brought out with especial clarity by Hensleigh Wedgwood, a distinguished etymologist of the pre-Skeat era. He says: “The radical signification seems to be going along like a dog scenting his way with his nose to the ground, sniffing for victuals or what can be picked up…. The idea of meanness arises from the dog being deterred by no rebuffs when he is sniffing after food…. The metaphor is distinctly seen in the slang term of an area sneak, one who pries into areas for what he can pick up.” Language historians feel secure only while dealing with recurring situations; exceptions can be neither predicted nor even reconstructed with certainty. Most verbs resembling sneak are also expressive because they refer to actions describing strong emotions, the use of force, or nontrivial behavior. Such are Dutch snaken “crave, hanker,” Icelandic snaka “rummage about,” and especially Engl. snooks that surfaced late in the 19th century (cock a snook “make a derisive gesture with thumb to nose”), along with Snooks, the hypothetical family name of an unidentifiable person; the English dialectal verb snook “hanker” also exists. The closest kin of the sneak ~ snick ~ snak ~ snook family is snoop, from Dutch, and its cognates, which mean “mooch, cadge; loiter, loaf.” Most of them have presumably been around since the 17th or the end of the 16th century (though the meaning “creep” is old) and make the impression of being part of the early modern North European cant (the language of the underworld) that “sneaked” into colloquial German, Dutch and English and with time acquired a measure of respectability. This is a common occurrence with low slang.
We can now turn to snuck. The form is puzzling. As is known, English verbs, like the verbs in all the Germanic languages, are divided into two groups: strong and weak. Theses labels are conventional and go back to the terminology offered by Jacob Grimm. Strong verbs change their root vowel in forming their principal forms (for example, ride ~ rode ~ ridden, sing ~ sang ~ sung, give ~ gave ~ given, take ~ took ~ taken, and so forth), whereas weak verbs only add an ending, as in miss ~ missed, beg ~ begged, and land ~ landed. The number of strong verbs is relatively small, but they are among the most common in the language: see, stand, sit, come, go, etc. Only the weak type is productive, that is, a new verb will form its past tense and the past participle according to the miss-beg-land pattern. It is unimaginable that a verb like drum develop the forms drum-drame-drum on the analogy of come-came-come or that anyone coin the past kuck (from kick) because the past of stick is stuck. Analogy works almost exclusively in the opposite direction: numerous strong verbs have become weak over the centuries, as opposed to a tiny group of weak verbs that have joined the strong conjugation. The past of sneak, a late addition to the vocabulary of English, is, naturally sneaked, but snuck is widespread in American English, and its emergence causes surprise. Another weak verb that has gone over to the strong class is American Engl. dove for dived, and the two are often discussed together. But whatever explanation can be offered for the change from sneaked to snuck will hardly hold for dove.
English has at least three preterit forms with the vowel of snuck, namely, dug, stuck, and struck. However, the verbs dig, stick, and strike have not become weak. An eminent British scholar devoted a long article to snuck and came to the conclusion that snuck, from the way it sounds, describes its action better than sneaked. His conclusion is probably right. Snuck is shorter and therefore more “final” than sneaked, but sneak differs from snack and snap in that it does not presuppose abruptness (the opposite is true). Consequently, the substitution of a strong form for a weak one still remains partly unexplained. Perhaps the main support for the idea that snuck owes its origin to the expressive meaning of the verb comes from its environment: both sneak and snack have undergone a series of unexpected changes. Against such a background, the history of snuck may no longer look like an insoluble riddle. However, no change in language is obligatory. This is why predictions about the future of sounds and forms should be made with extreme caution or better not made at all.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins,
The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”