And the occasional turtle.

Dear Word Detective: My goodness! Your site is just as bad (or good) as a dictionary. I start out to look up one thing and get sidetracked with all the other interesting things I find. However, my question concerns the word “snip” (plural “snips”), as in the nursery rhyme, “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of.” The word came up as my husband and I were discussing our grandson (who is the pride and joy of both his father and grandfather). Our discussion on possible sources ranged over a wide area, some rather improbable. Thanks for any help. — Betty.

snip08.pngYou just had to bring up that rhyme, didn’t you? That “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” thing has bothered me ever since I first heard it because it is so utterly unfair. Let’s see, girls are “sugar and spice and everything nice,” right? Doesn’t leave boys much to shoot for, does it? But even so, “snails”? As a small boy, snails gave me the wimwams. And since I was acquainted with the hygiene (or lack thereof) of our family dog, “puppy dog tails” wasn’t very appetizing either. As for “snips,” it sounded like the stuff left on the floor after a haircut. It doesn’t help that other versions of the poem (usually attributed to the 19th century British poet Robert Southey) substitute “slugs” or “snakes” for “snips,” or that some scholars think that the phrase was originally “snips of snails.” Oh goody, ragged bits of slimy snails and smelly dogs’ tails. No wonder I was lousy at baseball.

Assuming the word in the nursery rhyme really is “snips” all by itself, it’s probably the least offensive item in that libelous inventory of boyhood. The verb “to snip” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, probably derived from the Low German word “snippen” (to snip or shred), with the meaning “to take something quickly; to snatch.” The origin of “snip” is apparently “echoic,” i.e., the sound of the word imitates a quick, sharp action.

Pretty quickly, however, “snip” took on its modern meaning of “to cut, as if with scissors,” with the sense that the cut is small and quick. In the 18th century, “snip” begat the adjective “snippy,” originally meaning “stingy” but today meaning “nasty” or “coldly critical” (“Well, you don’t have to get snippy,” Al Gore to George W. Bush, Nov. 7, 2000).

“Snip” as a noun appeared at about the same time as the verb, meaning “a small piece of something cut off, especially of cloth.” Various figurative uses of “snip” have evolved over the years, from “a young or small person” to slang uses meaning “a sure thing” and “a bargain.” The sense of “snip” in “snips and snails,” etc., is probably “small pieces of things,” perhaps odds and ends of the sort collected by small boys. Speaking as one who used to routinely carry rocks and bits of string in his pockets, that’s OK with me, but I still don’t like snails.

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