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Q From Barry Nordin: I’m in a snit over exactly what a snit is. Do you know?

A It’s a neat turn of phrase, but to write that does indeed suggest you don’t know what it means. A snit is a fit of rather childish temper, a tantrum or perhaps a sulk. Though word meanings arouse many emotions in subscribers, snits are not usually among them.

Several people have in the past asked where this word comes from, so this is the perfect moment to look into it. All the dictionaries bar one I’ve consulted dismiss the matter with their dispiriting stock phrase “origin unknown”. The exception is Jonathon Green’s Cassell Dictionary of Slang, which mentions the name of Clare Boothe Luce.

Clare Boothe was a talented woman, variously an editor, playwright, politician, journalist and diplomat. The Saturday Review of Literature of 23 December 1939 remarked about snit that “nobody in Georgia seems ever to have heard of either the word or the state of being until Miss Clare Boothe isolated and defined it”. This must have been in reference to her play Kiss the Boys Goodbye of the previous year, in which she used it. Through that play (a successful one that was listed as one of the ten best of the year), she most certainly popularised it, and may well have invented it (most dictionaries are cautious about the origin because nobody can actually prove she did).

What she based snit on isn’t known, though it’s a splendidly sharp and echoic word that nicely evokes the spitting hissy fit of such a temper tantrum.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Nov. 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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sni1.htm
Last modified: 8 November 2003.