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.

10 comments on this post.
  1. Emily:

    Like “snippets” I guess :) makes sense. Though I prefer ‘slugs and snails’ I had never heard Snips and snails before.

  2. Amish:

    I was watching a cartoon with my little sister and they were showing snips, snails and puppy dog tails… the snips were pieces of cut hair like what you would find on the floor of a barber shop. I saw it on the cartoon Powerpuff Girls

  3. Angus:

    As an ex little boy. I can assure you the snips are the intentional or unintentional collection of sundry items found in the pockets, hats, jackets, lunch boxes etc of little boys.

    One recalls a CrackerJack advertisement in the ’60s. A boy does not have quite enough money to pay for his coveted snack. He emties his pockets on to the grocery counter. The contents ranged from rocks to marbles to a yoyo to a whistle…that dear freinds, are *snips*. Angus (who at heart is likely still a little boy) …now where did I put that puppy dog tail ;\

  4. Terri:

    I think puppy dog tails are a good thing. Every time you come home the puppy is wagging his or her tail with delight. Very honest response to happiness. I love the Cracker Jack reference to “snips”. I will go with that one. Snails? Maybe because little boys always seem to be dirty? Thanks for the information.

  5. Meg:

    When my children were babies, I too thought the boys section of this poem was unfair. But, as they’ve grown, I’ve been able to see the playful truth in both sides of this nursery rhyme. Snips absolutely conjures up the many little things boys are continuously collecting, leaving around, and interested in. But the term also makes me consider being quick with the tongue – snippy, talkative, teasing/joking/jovial, silly, and with an independent and active streak. Snails reminds me of boys love of the natural world, their wild abandon when playing in the elements, and their sometimes snails pace when having to do what they’d rather not be doing. Plus, there’s just something eternally interesting and naturally beautiful about a snail’s shell – and a boy’s personality. The puppy dogs’ tails – who wouldn’t see the similarity between an eager to please, playful, active, energetic, lovable puppy dog and a little boy? On the other hand, the sweetness, warmth, caring and calmness of a little girl can melt your heart and be “everything nice”, though I see a streak of wild, fun and sassy in the “spice” part of it all!

  6. L.A.:

    I’ve always adored this nursery rhyme and wondered the same thing ! Haha…Ithought parsnips.

    Thanks :)

  7. L:

    Interesting ideas, but I looked it up & snips are small eels, which makes more sense. I alluded it to what boys like.

  8. Somebody That I Used to Know:

    Amish people watch powerpuff girls?

  9. andria:

    As a mom of two little boys ages 8 and 4, this comment on the post brought tears to my eyes. Yes, it’s the vibrant, curious, and playful boy that this old poem praises.

  10. Patricia:

    I prefer this version:

    Snaps and snails and puppy dogs’ tails
    And dirty sluts in plenty
    Smell sweeter than roses in young men’s noses
    When the heart is one and twenty

    Marcel Proust
    In Search of Lost Time

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