etymology - Where did "snuck" come from?

  • MrHen

    Ages ago, I remember typing snuck into a word processor and being surprised to see it flagged as not a word. My current computer seems to be okay with it and my local dictionary has this in its listing for sneak:

    sneak — verb (past sneaked or informal snuck |ˈsnək|)

    So snuck made it into the dictionary as an informal variation of sneaked. A cursory search at Etymonline revealed nothing relevant.

  • Answers
  • KeithS

    It's just an incorrect tense construction of the verb that passed into common usage.

    Verb tensing requiring a change in vowel is among the hardest area of grammar to create hard and fast rules for. The majority of past participles just add "ed" (or sometimes just "d"), such as walked, soaked, etc.

    However, when that doesn't work there are really no good rules to say how the vowel should change. There are also some distinctions originally made between various past tenses that have been lost in colloquy; for instance, different conjugations ("it stank", but "I stunk") or between various past tense constructions resulting in passive/active voice differences ("I sang", but "the song was sung").

    "Sneak" is a verb that is technically regular in past participle formation ( add -ed to form "sneaked"), but because it is phonetically similar to some exceptions that change the present tense vowel to "u" (stunk, sung, sunk), the vowel change is becoming acceptable for this word as well. Gotta love the organic nature of human language.

    EDIT: Further exercise of my "Google-fu" has brought up this blog, which in turn references this BBC article. It appears that the word "sneak" is the latest of a series of verbs that have undergone "weak to strong drift".

    To explain (hopefully consicely): early Anglo-Saxon language categorized verbs in several classes depending on how their various forms were constructed. This ancient system is where we get such peculiarities of tensing as bring/brought, think/thought, see/saw, fly/flew, and sing/sang/sung. Over time, the various verb classes coalesced into two: verbs that formed the past participle by simply adding "-d"/"-ed" were "weak", and verbs that formed the past participle any other way were "strong".

    It is unusual but not unheard of for a verb's conjugation and tensing rules to change. However, when it does, it's usually "strong to weak"; conjugation and participle construction are simplified from the complex vowel-changing rules to easy suffixing. The word "glide" used to have the past participle "glad", which has been completely abolished in modern usage in favor of the "weak" construction "glided".

    However, "sneak", and words that have gone before it like "dig", "string" and "dive", went the other way; they went from simply adding the suffix to changing the vowel. "Digged" became "dug", "stringed" became "strung", and "dived" became "dove". In this same way, "sneaked" is becoming "snuck"; the word "snuck" is already generally accepted as "sneak"'s past participle in most of the English-speaking world except for Britain. Eventually, it is thought, those tea-timers will give in to the pressures of the colonies.

  • Hugo

    Snuck, according to an 1890 Dialect Notes, originates from Western Ohio. This is also the third oldest reference I found.

    Ballou's monthly magazine, Volumes 53-54, 1881:

    Well, sir, your boy Aleck got a straw, snuck up behind a sorrel mule, tickled him on the hind leg, and

    Well, sir, your boy Aleck got a straw, snuck up behind a sorrel mule, tickled him on the hind leg, and" — The lady gave a wild shriek, and started for the door. — "and the blamed critter never lifted a hoof. Never so much as switched

    The Southern Bivouac, Volume 6, 1887:

    snuck een

    One bright, golden, delicious afternoon in the latter part of May, Jim left the patch where he had been hard at work all day, and "snuck een" to his cabin by the back way. He proceeded hastily to doff his everyday clothes and don his ...

    Dialect notes, Volume 1, 1890:

    enter image description here

    snuck, v., trans, and intrans. : to sneak. " He snucked that," "he snucked up to it." Western Ohio (Cognate of snug ? J.M.H.)

    Snuck subsequently started sneaking in, slowly, and has snuck its way surely but steadily ever since:

    snuck vs. sneak on Google nGram Viewer


  • Daniel

    I found a comprehensive discussion of the word here.

    Usage has changed...

    In present-day English, snuck is extremely widespread throughout the country, even among educated speakers, and in the speech of younger people it is the dominant form. Many younger speakers are unaware that sneaked exists, or think that it sounds as wrong as many older speakers think snuck does. It is absolutely incorrect to say that snuck is "nonstandard," as one current usage book does, or even that it's "wrong," as many people believe. It is not even "informal" or "jocose," as one reasonably up-to-date book says. Snuck is fully standard in American English...

    Many people object to snuck, but that has been changing and is likely to change further as younger snuck-ful speakers age and enter the mainstream. Sneaked is still somewhat more common in print, but that is probably reflective of the fact that sneaked is favored by more conservative editors and copy editors.

    Here is some history, from Merriam-Webster, along with the following observation:

    ...sometime in the late 19th century a variant irregular form, snuck, began to appear in the United States

    "' den snuck home" -The Lantern (New Orleans), 17 Dec. 1887

    "Dock Knowital he Snuck Out the room an' Disappeared" -Frank W. Sage, D.D.S., Dental Digest, November 1902

    "...I snuck off down the street and got something to eat" -Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al, 1916

    But where does snuck come from? We don't know; it is as mysterious as the origin of sneak itself. The only evidence we have suggests snuck is a late 19th-century North American innovation. One theory suggests it may have been a survival in some obscure northern English or Scottish dialect brought here by settlers. It is tempting to trace it form Old English snican; Old English strican of the same class of strong verbs gave us strike and struck; there is at least one surviving instance of Middle English snike, around 1240, which is clearly derived from snican. But no evidence survives to connect either sneak or snuck conclusively to snican and snike. It is a long time from 1240 to 1887.

    I would say that, given the indefiniteness of this case, it seems plausible that the form strike/struck leaked into sneak/sneaked, giving sneak/snuck.

    Much more speculation would appear to be useless.

  • Eric Coates


    I have no doubts about historic uses of English words, indeed, it is an interesting area of etymological study. My message was not intended to be part of the discussion on distant historic or even dialect usage but regarding the state of the standard language, especially in England, when I had my schooling (1950-1964). I have no problem with Americanisms so long as they are not plain illiterate. In fact, I believe many Americanisms are an improvement on standard UK English, especially where the intention (or accident?) has been to rationalise spelling. If only English were as phonetic as Spanish, my second language, where to get a child competently literate takes only a fraction of the effort required for a comparable literacy in English. Having said that, of course, our verbs are immeasurably simpler with most having only two or three forms for different tenses. George Bernard Shaw was one of the greatest exponents of our language which he clearly loved but he, too, strongly believed that its spelling should be rationalised. I wonder whether he'd have considered "snuck" a rationalisation or an improvement.

  • Eric Coates

    I learnt standard English in England when grammar was still important. I, therefore, have no intention of "updating" my vocabulary with anything other than necessary neologisms and I am certainly not going to modify pronunciation to keep up with any new trend. I shall continue to pronounce "schedule" as "shedule" and not "skedule" and I shall continue to denounce imports from the USA that are as incorrect and downright ignorant there as they are in UK. Notable examples include "lay" used intransitively where it should be "lie" and "rung (pp)" used for the simple past tense "rang" - now getting very common in UK. "Snuck" is well beyond the pale.

  • Related Question

    etymology - Where did the term "OK/Okay" come from?
  • Daniel LeCheminant

    I've heard lots of varying histories of the term "OK".

    Is there any evidence of the true origin of the term?

  • Related Answers
  • Charlie

    According to the OED, it's an initialism of oll (or orl) korrect, first seen in 1839, something apparently quite funny. It was reinforced by another initialism OK from the nickname of president Martin Van Buren, Old Kinderhook during his electoral campaign. The verb was null-derived from this around 1882.

    Other ideas include that it was a Choctaw word oke, meaning 'it is'; also the French and Scottish ideas as well.

  • MrHen

    In my history class last year, I was told that it originated from US President Martin van Buren's campaign slogan, "Old Kinderhook." According to Wikipedia, that's only one theory. Etymonline says that "Oll Korrect" is the origin, and "Old Kinderhook" is how it became popular.

  • Ron Maimon

    The etymology from a jokey acronym is a 1960s fabrication. There is no way that such nonsense would catch on without a reinforcing loan-word borrowing. The acronyms by themselves are not funny. They become funny if people were already using terms that sounded like these acronyms, and these terms were poking fun at illiterate misunderstandings of these terms.

    Like in a region with many spanish speakers, the following acronym might be funny:

    C.C.: Correct, Captain (Si, Si)

    In the 19th century, the U.S. was not an English speaking nation--- only the settled parts were. The frontier parts had large Choctaw speaking swaths, and settlers and natives had to be at least bilingual to get along. There is no doubt that a large number of loanwords were floating around at the time, and some of them might sound like some letters. Then if someone wrote down a dictionary of abbreviations that sounded like Choctaw loanwords, it would actually be funny. OK as "Oll Korrect" for example.

    Due to the atrocious American Native policies, the death marches and so on, anything to do with natives was systematically erased from the collective memory, and replaced by nonsense. I believe that Ok is frontier Choctaw, Okeh (pronounced okay), and was given a non-native etymology as part of the program of erasing native contributions from the collective memory.

    See this page for a complete convincing argument, a demolition of the fabricated "Oll Korrect" or "Old Kinderhook" etymologies (both related), and more detail: . The dictionaries of the 19th century knew it was Choctaw.

  • moioci

    The consensus opinion is that it likely derived from a jokey abbreviation for "oll korrect," which was hilarious back in the 19th century.

  • Hugo

    Yes. The consensus opinion is probably right. In the early 19th century, it became all the rage to have playfully misspelled/mispronunciations/abbreviations for common phrases -- "all correct" became "oil korrect"; A.C. became O.K. The Martin Van Buren presidential campaign reinforced usage of the "OK" entity. He hailed from "Old Kinderhook", New York -- a reference to a section of land where children played or which had a rock formation that looked like a child's face.

    "Old Kinderhook is OK" was his campaign slogan.

    As an aside, many people think that the word "hooker" came directly from General Joseph Hooker of the U.S. Union Army in the Civil War (1861-1865). He and his men were hard drinkers and frequented prostitutes, and the story goes that the women seen around him became known as "hooker's women", then just "hookers".

    But the term "hooker"was in use in England in the 1840s, long before the General became a household name. As with "Old Kinderhook", there may have been reinforcement of the term, but it certainly wasn't started by him.

  • Onorio Catenacci

    I'm really surprised no one linked to this excellent article on The Straight Dope:

    "The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964."