snake (n.)

Middle English snake, "a long, limbless reptile," from Old English snaca, from Proto-Germanic *snakon (source also of Old Norse snakr "snake," Swedish snok, German Schnake "ring snake"), from PIE root *sneg- "to crawl, creeping thing" (source also of Old Irish snaighim "to creep," Lithuanian snakė "snail," Old High German snahhan "to creep"). In Modern English, gradually replacing serpent in popular use.

Traditionally applied to the British serpent, as distinguished from the venomous adder. Applied from 17c. to various snake-like devices and appliances. Snakes! as an exclamation is from 1839.

The meaning "treacherous person" is attested by 1580s (it was used of Satan in early 15c., and serpent and adder are older in this sense) Compare Old Church Slavonic gadu "reptile," gadinu "foul, hateful." The snake's reputation was not helped by the Genesis story, but the notion is older. The phrase snake in the grass "underhand, plotting, deceitful person" translates Virgil's Latet anguis in herba [Ecl. III:93].

Snake eyes in crap-shooting, "a throw of two ones" (the lowest possible roll), is from 1919, hence the association with bad luck. This might have influenced snake-bitten, snake-bit "unlucky," attested in sports slang by 1957, which also might be from a literal sense (attested by 1807), perhaps suggesting one doomed by a venomous bite.

The board game of Snakes and Ladders is attested from 1907. Snake charmer is from 1813. Snake pit is from 1883, as a supposed primitive test of truth or courage; the figurative sense is from 1941. Snake dance is by 1772 in reference to a Hopi ceremony; by 1911 as a party dance.

snake (v.)

1650s, transitive, "twist or wind into the form of a snake," originally of hair, from snake (n.). The intransitive sense of "move like a snake" is attested from 1848; that of "wind or twist like a snake" (of roads, etc.) is from 1875. Related: Snaked; snaking.

updated on January 31, 2023