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If we ever come across this word now, it’s most probably in the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado: “As he squirmed and struggled, / And gurgled and guggled, / I drew my snickersnee!” A snickersnee was a large knife.

A couple of centuries earlier it was not a single word but a phrase, steake or snye, which was also written as stick or snee, snick or snee, snick-a-snee, or in other ways. All these versions go back to a couple of Dutch words, steken, to thrust or stick, and snijden, to cut. We have exactly the same phrase, though inverted, made from native English words: cut and thrust.

Snickeersnee and its variations referred to a type of hand-to-hand fighting with pointed knives, or — by the end of the eighteenth century — to the knife one did it with.

It was fairly common in Victorian Britain, and appeared several times in works by William Makepeace Thackeray, for example in his Burlesques: “Otto, indeed, had convulsively grasped his snickersnee, with intent to plunge it into the heart of Rowski; but his politer feelings overcame him. ‘The count need not fear, my lord,’ said he: ‘a lady is present.’”

It seems certain that Lewis Carroll had it in mind when he wrote Jabberwocky: “One, two! One, two! And through and through / The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Aug. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 2 August 2003.