‘Gisèle found her adoption file in a drawer in her parents’ room and from time to time she snuck a look at it’ – article in The Atlantic, Spring 2023, reprinted in The Week, April 2023 

This snippet of modern journalism comes from an article first published in America and syndicated in the UK. It contains a word – ‘snuck’ – that was until recently unknown in British English, but which has lately become more and more common in both the written and the spoken language. The process of our adopting American terms, as we well know, is quite normal (and has been for two hundred years or more so we can hardly register surprise). I’m not protesting, but, as usual, trying to understand it.

For a start, I’m intrigued by the word itself. It’s a typical ‘Americanism’ in that it has no regular place in English grammar. From its context in the sentence, ‘snuck’ must be a past participle – but of what verb? The only possibility is ‘sneak’, in the sense of ‘to act surreptitiously or dishonestly’ but ‘snuck’ doesn’t occur in a late twentieth-century edition of the OED. The verb itself, ‘to sneak,’ comes from the Middle English ‘sniken’, to creep or crawl. Some dictionaries, including Chambers, tell us that ‘snuck’ is a dialect word, but the most important dialect in question is American. Others refer to the Dutch word ‘snuck’, but that doesn’t seem to be connected with our expression. Perhaps it emerged in the US from a dialect in use by some localised settlers from Britain. But it was never, I believe, a feature of standard English at any period. 

Merriam-Webster traces its occurrence in the US to the late nineteenth century, when it may have crept in from its use in a particular local community. But I’m inclined to think ‘snuck’ was originally a jocular alternative to the regular past participle ‘sneaked’, following the very common example of words like ‘strike’ (‘struck’), ‘stick’ (stuck’) or ‘fling’ (‘flung’). To my ears, ‘snuck’ doesn’t sound like a serious word at all, but there’s no watchdog insisting that additions to the language should have a ‘serious’ etymology through a codified derivation from historically authenticated terms. Although we have gradually got used to ‘snuck’ in the speech and writings of Americans, it has only very recently begun to be taken for granted in British English.

And my sense that it’s essentially a joke word means that I can’t reconcile myself to its use in formal contexts. This raises the general question of how modern English functions. When the formality of accepted rules of grammar and vocabulary is discounted, our means of expression are radically curtailed. ‘Snuck’, as in the sentence I began with, suggests a not necessarily serious act of surreptitious movement or prying. So I hope that, however popular the word becomes, it doesn’t completely usurp the meaning of ‘sneaked’ with its connotation of underhand, possibly dishonest dealing, and in particular the betrayal of confidence. 

 There’s some consolation, perhaps, in the thought that ‘sneak’ has always carried with it an air of informality, from ‘sneak-thief’ to ‘sneakers’ – and that last term for a type of informal footwear is another undoubted Americanism.

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at letters@reaction.life