A bus tour through a mountain village


Dictionary-browsing in English is a Times-Square stroll. You walk with words from everywhere. Here are ally, alligator, alliteration and all-nighter, all on the same page!

But in places it's more like mountain villages. Everyone squints rather the same way, and they think you're funny. It smells of old woodsmoke and clouds.

Those odd word-burgs repay hovering. They are gravitational lenses.

Etymonline has about 150 word-entries that begin with sn-. Native words along with many from Norse, much of the rest being borrowings from Dutch and German.

Consonant clusters like sn- give some languages the vapors. Not the Teutons. Germanic speech is a candy sampler of juicy or crunchy consonant clusters. Kn-, gl-, wr-.

You fall among one set and walk with it a while and you sense they all began life as the same notion. The words themselves may not even know it; it's not like Latin. Now they are entries straggled across the pages, but you feel yourself among a word-family, slumberous and older than three oaks.

The neighbors shied away from this one, too. The standard Greek and Latin lexicons offer no sn- words. My Old French dictionary (Hindley) has no sn- words, and the only sn- word in my modern French dictionary is snob, which is from English.

Sn- is all over modern German, but an ear for fun (I suspect the Rhinelanders) expanded it to schn-, adding slush to the dry sn-. Yiddish took that and ran with it, and English has been happy to borrow in that form from both (schnauzer, schnapps, schnitzel, schnozz).

If you flip through the Clark-Hall Old English dictionary or the Zoëga Old Icelandic dictionary, you hit a squall of snow words, which seem to be from a root common to IE languages, at least the northern ones.

You meet snake and snail, sounding in Old English very much as they do now, which also are thought to be from an IE root, one that formed words for low, creeping things.

In Old English and modern, some sn- words (mostly in sni-), are used for a quick cut or a detached (cut off) part (snip, snick). The main Old English verb there was sniþan "to cut, cut off," which has died. This group often is said to be from an IE root, but there are doubts.

Across the Germanic languages, sn-/schn- words relate to the human nose or the animal snout: snarl, sneeze, snooze, snuff, snoop, snot, snoot. And don't forget snoozle, a variant of nuzzle that Emily Brontë uses of a dog nuzzling your face with it snout.

Probably the root is imitative, perhaps of more than one type of nose/snout-sound (a snarl is not a sniffle). The senses can extend to the snap of a dog's snout; the snort a horse can make, and the rough or obstructed breathing of a human snore.

Their relation to the Germanic "cut" group is uncertain; they don't seem to be kin.

It is in the extended senses that the words get inbred. In other word-trees, extended senses shoot their meanings out away from the family cluster. In these Germanic groups, they bend back into it and thread needles among the cousins.

Many of the sn- words also have senses relating to insult or contempt, or to arrogance: Snooty, snit, snub, snot-nosed, sneer, snark, snob, snide.

Snub as "treat coldly" is a modern sense-softening of the Middle English verb, borrowed in a sense closer to "curse, chide, scold, reprove." The etymological sense is perhaps "to cut off," and the word probably is related to snip and from the "cut" group. Another Middle English verb, now lost, was snape "to be hard upon, rebuke, revile."

To cut or cut off as "to punish, reject, rebuke" is a recognizable figure. To cut someone, in modern slang, is much like a snub was to a viking. Or it could be the same image in cut (someone) down to size. In Old Norse, sneið was "to slice," also "to taunt, slight, cut with sarcasm;" sneiða was "cut into slices," also "taunt, make fun of."

Did they snub you with a sneer? Sneer (v.) meant "to snort," like a horse, and other languages also used words for a horse's harsh snuff or a dog's snarl for "to scorn." By Pope's day, sneer could be "speak derisively, insinuate contempt in words." The actual lip-curling gesture you make when doing it seems to come last, only from 1775.

And were they snooty about it? Snooty (adj.) "proud, arrogant" was noted in 1918 as U.S. college slang. Probably the notion is "looking down one's nose."

Who snubs you? A snob. Snub and snob seem to be unrelated in etymology, so far as either of them has any. Snob begins 1785 as "a shoemaker, a shoemaker's apprentice," gets picked up in Cambridge student slang for "a townie," and by 1831 when the students have grown up it's in literary use as "person of the ordinary or lower classes."

This does a back-flip through "person who vulgarly apes his social superiors," pommels over "person who insists on his gentility," in addition to one who merely aspires to it, and by 1911 the word lands facing the other direction: "one who despises those who are considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste."

For such an odd and obscure word to have stuck so hard in this sense that it even bulled into the French dictionary — what's that but the gravitational pull of sn-?

Snide is another modern (mid-19c.) underworld slang word that vaunted into popular and literary use. It could be ultimately from the German sn- "cutting" words, but that's a guess. Still you can feel the pull of the rest of them on it. Whether it is one of them or not, it was born among the pack, which boosts its odds to endure in the language, to become the word one reaches for.


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