Thursday, August 23, 2012

Our Sneaky Language

How did the word “snuck” sneak into the dictionary and into our “approved” form of language?

This word is one of my pet peeves, and if you are an editing client of mine, I will strongly suggest that you use the “proper” form “sneaked” unless it’s in dialogue.

I think my reaction stems from growing up in an isolated rural area where most people were not highly educated (no denigration intended—they were wonderful friends and neighbors and would do anything to help each other in times of need. But a word like “snuck” used as slang by people who also said, “The kids had their pitchers took at school today” or "I seen him do it" to me is an indication of that same lack of education or care about proper English.

It’s like “ain’t.” That’s in the dictionary too, but it’s still not “proper” to use, except in slang dialogue.

According to Wiktionary, “snuck” is an irregular verb form that originated in the late 19th century dialect, but it is now listed as the “simple past tense and past participle of sneak.” Merriam-Webster’s Etymology states: akin to Old English snIcan to sneak along, Old Norse snIkja.

Here’s a link to an interesting article on Sentence First: An Irishman’s Blog About the English Language.

And this is a snippet from The Word Detective’s Q&A, who seems to agree with me:

Yes, ‘snuck’ is a real word, although it has always been classified as ‘substandard English.’ ‘Snuck’ first appeared in the 19th century as a regional variant of ‘sneaked,’ and is still considered colloquial English, but is apparently gaining in respectability among literate folk. Still, ‘snuck’ is not the sort of word to use on your resume, although ‘sneaked’ is usually not a big hit on resumes either, come to think of it. In general, however, my advice is to stick with ‘sneaked.’ Unless you're talking to Elvis, of course. I happen to know he says ‘snuck’."

What are some of your “pet peeve” words that have sneaked into the English Language?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.  
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  1. Haha! Guilty! I've always used 'snuck' and thought it was my South African English influence. Didn't realise it was actual slang. Will correct all snucks to sneakeds :P But I do love the word snuck, makes the action of sneaking sound quicker and more illicit to my ears.

  2. "Impact" pretending to be a verb. I began editing in the seventies when governmentese tried to sneak "impacted" into the language. Looks like they succeeded against one or two slashing red pencils.

  3. When you wrote about snuck, Heidi, it reminded me of all the kids who "brung" things to school. While the dictionaries have kept the gates locked on this one, I hear it often, even from "kids" old enough to grow beards.

    Just for fun I'll toss in a colloquialism from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where I lived for a long time, which drove me CRAZY:

    "My hairs need cut."

  4. Texting and friending gets on my nerves today. :/ And in my rural stretch of the middle, there is ongoing "drouth". I remind myself that all the words we use are just made up anyway, so don't get too hoity-toity. :D

  5. Oh yes, "brung" and "drouth" are others I heard a lot growing up. And the "hairs" cut is from the German influence. Hair in German is plural. My roomie in college always used to say that.

    Making nouns into verbs seems to be a big pastime by government officials! I felt the same way about "parenting."

  6. Okay, this phrase has not made it into the English language...but it drives me crazy: "irregardless of the true facts. My father used to say this all the time as a joke, so that I am sensitive both of these nasty, redundant words. Lately though, my nightmare is "re-purposed. As in, we "re-purposed the meeting. Shoot me now.

  7. Kill me, but I prefer the word "snuck". It has a deeper tone than "sneaked". I'll probably use the latter then for formal usages, but I'm going to probably use "snuck" with my 1st person narrator.

  8. Hey, not to change the subject, but can one of the BRP bloggers run over to the office and tell me if you can post? I get an error message all day. Thanks. Okay, so I snuck some business in. Carry on!

  9. Dany, our sneaky language and our sneaky business, haha. I think it's a yahoo groups thing—I had trouble with another group today as well. It's still giving me an error message.

  10. I love this!
    "Irregardless" drives me up a wall too, Liza. Another redundancy that makes me crazy is "9 a.m. in the morning." As opposed to 9 a.m. in the evening? LOL

    Chihuahua Zero--it's OK if you want to characterize your 1st person character that way, and also to use it in dialogue.

  11. Sorry I missed this good discussion yesterday. I snuck into town for most of the day to work on a history project. LOL

    Good point about all the words we use being made up anyway, Dani. So we could just come up with a bunch of our own.

  12. Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, notes that snuck is the informal past tense of sneak. Informal … slang … about the same. Sometimes, though, it seems that what's grammatically correct sounds stuffy and doesn't flow. Maybe that's because our common usage has wandered a long way from proper English, do you suppose?

  13. Snuck never bothered be. What does aggravate me is when news reporters on TV say someone went missing.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.