Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The words of the day

The readers of newspapers will have noticed the deadening repetition of the same words (I don’t mean pandemic, virus, distance, or opening—those are probably unavoidable). No, everybody nowadays hunkers down (the activity formerly reserved for the greatest leaders at their secret meetings), while many admire Sweden, where people trust their government (the Swedish ambassador to the United States has even written an article about it for Los Angeles Times), and so forth. Hunkering down—yes, I understand, but people trusting their government and one another?! What are they up to? I think I should say something about the origin of trust, even though I have a vague recollection that I have already done so. In any case, the one word that needs our immediate attention is snitch. Enthusiastic citizens vent their wrath on the malefactors who walk unmasked in public (that is, show their true face), and snitch on them.  Others warn us of the dangers of totalitarianism and curse the enthusiasts. Now, snitch means “a (police) informer, someone who rats on others.” I’ll keep my feelings about snitches to myself, but, true to the  goal of this blog, will devote some space to the word’s etymology, the more so as dictionaries state with an unusual degree of unanimity that the origin of snitch is “uncertain,” while I believe that it is almost certain.

Unwilling to show his true face. Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani from Pexels.

By the way, the phrase “origin uncertain” is deceptive, because everything hinges on the degree of uncertainty. Did the word appear from nowhere and despite all our endeavors is doomed to remain in limbo? Or do we know something about the word’s derivation but not enough to draw reliable conclusions about its etymology? Or, finally, have several ideas been proposed, none of them sufficiently convincing? We will see below that the verdict about the obscurity of snitch is due to excessive caution.

Old books tell us that murderers tend to return to the place of their crime. Is it a romantic legend? Modern criminals roam freely, show no signs of nostalgia, and may not be caught until someone, lured by an offer of a huge sum of money, snitches on them. But I, though perfectly innocent, do often return to my favorite haunts. One of them (in the context of this essay) is the sequence of posts devoted to the  derivation of sn-words. In the past, I have discussed sniff, snuff, sneeze, snout, and snob (see the posts for May 14, 2008; May 1, 2019, and May 8, 2019).

A sleuth and a snitch. Image by shootelkora from Pixabay.

While reading the sn-pages of an etymological dictionary, one keeps running into the same statement: “Of Dutch or Low German origin.” Dutch sources have relatively little to say about the words in question. Hardly any one of them is bookish: cf. snaffle, snap, snarl, snack, sneak, sneer, snick, snip, snot, and snug. Some are borrowed from Scandinavian or “of unknown origin.” Some such coinages must have been sound-imitative, expressive, perhaps slangy, or even vulgar. They engendered one another (like snout and snot, snore and snort; snite and snipe, both meaning “snatch”), referred to the nose (like sneeze), or coined to offend (snub and snob). A sn-word degrades its bearer. For example, Swedish snok ~ Danish snog mean “sleuth” (nearly the same as snitch!), and several similar Scandinavian nouns refer to apple polishers, toadies, and all kinds of parasites.

Old Engl. snican meant “to creep”; its counterpart in Icelandic had long i (sníkja). Modern Engl. sneak (known since the sixteenth century), with its present-day root vowel, can be traced to a form with neither short nor long i. Perhaps all three were coined more or less independently, but the impulse that inspired their creators must have been the same. Snake is an old word, with cognates elsewhere in Germanic and Celtic. Its modern congeners in Swedish and Danish are snok and snog (they mean “garter snake”). But we have already seen both! The most authoritative old Scandinavian etymological dictionary states that they are not related pairwise. Perhaps they are not, but their similarity is astounding. After all, snakes do creep, and the animal name seems to owe its origin to the same mental process that gave us many of its look-alikes. It will be remembered that refences to snakes are seldom complimentary.

Everything depends on the degree of uncertainty. Doubt, public domain via pxfuel.

Fortified by the examples cited above, we can examine snitch. It appears that the clue to its origin is provided by snatch, despite the chronological gap between them: snatch has been known in English since the sixteenth century, while snitch surfaced in an English text in 1676 (so the OED) and meant “a fillip on the nose.” In 1785, snitch “police informer” surfaced in a slang dictionary. There can be no certainty that we are dealing with the same word: snitch might have been coined twice (compare the doubts about the difference between Scandinavian snok/snog1 and snok/snog2), but they probably belong together.  Snatch is a rather obscure doublet of snack, but the great Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge pointed out as early as 1874 that the Swedish cognates of Engl. snatch, even though they too have the vowel a in the root, mean “to steal small things.” It is the reference to the small size of the purloined objects that may be important. After all, a fillip is a small flip, and a snitch is a petty operative.

A “snatch” as the parent of “snitch”? Münster’s sights and views. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As has been known for a long time (and I have often referred to this fact), the vowel i, as in sip, tip, pick, tends to evoke the idea of smallness. In words like pit-a-pat, trictrac, wigwam, whippersnapper, wishywashy, and so forth, the first component always contains short i and “progresses” to a more open vowel, usually a. Compare also snip and snap, flip and flap. Snitch seems to be a diminutive version of snatch. To be sure, the semantic range of all such words is broad. Their senses are fluid and sometimes mutually exclusive. For instance, the noun snatch, known since the fourteenth century, has been recorded with the meaning “catch, hasp; trap, snare; snack” and “small amount.” But in comparison with snitch, snatch looks big! Thus, I would like to propose that a snitch a diminutive snatch (think of “trap” and “catch”). I cannot prove my hypothesis (etymologies can seldom be proved the way mathematical theorem are), but, to my mind, it looks reasonable and at least more inspiring than the cautious verdict: “Of uncertain origin.” Uncertain indeed: no respectable Indo-European root, no foreign form of which it can be a borrowing, no recorded name of the word’s inventor. But such are most sn-words, those products of “vulgar” creativity that, nevertheless, feel perfectly at home among our most “respectable” nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

Feature image credit: Image by tdfugere from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Ritchie

    I don’t believe that ‘wigwam’ belongs in your list of examples for i to a progression as its etymology is from the native American Algonquin family group. Unless you mean to imply that this vowel progression traverses language families.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *