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Using a linguist’s toolbox to learn the origin and mystery behind the word sneak

A Word, Please

I’ve never been very interested in etymology. I know that makes me a bad little language columnist. But the truth is, word histories all start to sound the same after a while. Such-and-such word came from this-other word in this-other language, which evolved from this-other word and its meaning changed subtly from this to that to some other thing over time. Same story, different details.

But while word origins don’t interest me much, a word with no known origin — now that’s interesting.

Lexicographers and linguists trace the histories of words by looking at written works going back decades, centuries or all the way back to the days of Chaucer. Doing so, they can determine when, where and how words have been used, as well as who was using them and how they’ve changed over time. So when you look up a word in a well-researched guide like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, you’re never surprised to find lots of historical context for whichever word you’re looking up.

But it’s quite surprising to see something like this: “‘Sneak’ is a word of mysterious origin.”

No idea. No clue. We gave up trying to figure this one out.

Then the mystery deepens: “It first turns up in Shakespeare.”

In other words, language experts can’t find a single written reference before “Measure for Measure,” in which Shakespeare in 1605 wrote, “Sneak not away, sir; for the friar and you must have a word.”

Before then, people may have been saying it, but no one whose work would survive four centuries was writing it.

Published works aren’t the only tool in the linguist’s toolbox. Etymological researchers can often find a direct link between a word and a similar word in a different or precursor language, like saying the word “vocation” comes from the Middle English “vocacioun,” and before that the Anglo-French “vocaciun” all the way back to the Latin “vocare,” meaning to call, and itself rooted in the Latin “vox,” meaning voice.

Researchers tried that approach with “sneak.” They failed.

“It seems to have no sure antecedents. There is a possible source in Old English — a verb ‘snican,’ of similar meaning. But Old English strong verbs of the class that ‘snican’ belongs to came into modern English with ‘-ike’ (as ‘strike’ from ‘strican’), and there is no evidence extant in Middle English to connect ‘sneak’ with ‘snican.’ “

So we don’t know anything about the word going back more than 400 years, but there have been some interesting developments since. For example, until the late 1800s, there was no “snuck.” The past tense and past participle (the past participle is the one that pairs with “have”) were both “sneaked.” So you’d say, “Yesterday I sneaked. In the past I have sneaked.”

Then “snuck” started showing up, interestingly, as snark — by which I mean mockery. It was often used in dialogue to represent, as Merriam’s puts it, “the comical speech of a bumpkin.”

“It appears that the few authors who had heard ‘snuck’ considered it typical of the speech of rural and not overly educated Americans and they used it in generally humorous contexts,” the usage guide reports.

But by the 1950s, “snuck” was a respectable term, appearing in newspapers, books and academic writing without the slightest hint of ridicule.

“In about a century ‘snuck’ has gone from an obscure and probably dialectal variant of the past and past participle to a standard, widely used variant that is about as common as the older ‘sneaked.’ “ Though that’s just in North American English. British English hasn’t been so quick to embrace “snuck.”

On this side of the pond, “sneaked” and “snuck” are recognized as equally legit by multiple dictionaries as both the simple past tense (Yesterday I sneaked/snuck out) or the past participle (In the past, I have sneaked/snuck out). You can use whichever you prefer.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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