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shameless pleading


Drop a dime to meet the fishes.

Dear Word Detective: In February 1998 you answered a question on the origin of the British term “grass” meaning, roughly, “to snitch.” But where did the word “snitch,” which is much older, come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s of unknown origin. Any thoughts on the word’s origin or on how it came to mean “grass”? — Jackie.

snitch08.pngWeird. Suddenly 1998 seems like a long, long time ago. It’s probably because that’s when we moved from New York City to rural Ohio, where time moves much more slowly. Incidentally, if anyone cares, I happen to know where all those 80s hairstyles ended up.

I presume that you found my column on “grass” in our online archive, but for the benefit of those not near a computer, here’s the short form. The use of “grass” as British slang for a police informer dates back to the 1930s, and is apparently a short form of the slang term “grasshopper,” meaning the same thing. “Grasshopper” itself is rhyming slang (“a secret language” in which words rhyme with a hidden meaning) for either “copper” (i.e., a police officer) or “shopper,” one who “shops” (sells) information to the police.

“Snitch” meaning “informer” is indeed an older word, dating back to the late 18th century. But the original meaning of “snitch” when it appeared a hundred years earlier was “a fillip on the nose,” a “fillip” being what we would today call a “flick” with one’s finger or a light, sudden slap of the hand. The actual origin of “snitch” is, as the OED says, unknown, but I would suspect an “echoic” origin, i.e., the word was intended to echo the action (and perhaps the sound) of a light, snapping tap on the schnozz. Such coinages are not uncommon. “Tap” and “slap,” for instance, are both of such “echoic” origins.

By about 1700, “snitch” had progressed from meaning “flick to the nose” to serving as slang for the nose itself (“As the … egg … broke on the ‘snitch’ of the Socialist candidate,” 1902), and this was the key development in the evolution of “snitch” as slang for “informer.” The nose has long been used as a symbol of intrusion into others’ business (e.g., a busybody is described as being “nosy”), and the image of a police dog or bloodhound “sniffing out” crime or tracking criminals has been a staple of popular culture for centuries. “Nose,” in fact, has been underworld slang for a spy or informer since the late 18th century (“The first issue of forged notes, it is stated by a nose (an informer), amounted to 500,” 1830). So using “snitch,” already slang for “the nose,” as slang for “an informer” would have been a natural development.

6 comments to Snitch

  • marcparis

    And I imagine the “nose” association with “snitch” is strengthened by the general use of sn- to refer to things nasal… (sneer, sneeze, snooty, snot,etc.).

  • cavario h.

    Are you familiar with the word “Snitch” being used colloquially to mean “to steal with stealth and quickness”?

  • I love it. What a double oxy moron

  • zio

    Snitch means to tattle or rat someone out slang for tattletale or blabbermouth

  • Leo smith

    Why is snitching such a dirty word?. Recently I had the most unfortunate conversation with a friend who insist that he would never give the authorities any information on any crime he witness been committed against a innocent person because that would be snitching and he’s not a snitch. I told him I was always under the impression that snitching only applies to individuals who are partners in crime and one decides to turn in the other to the police but he said no and that once you give information to the police that’s snitching

  • GMJ

    Leo, if you’re black in America snitching on anyone for anything is akin to selling out that person/condemning them to the brutality of white police. So even if you see someone get murdered in the street you don’t snitch because otherwise it might be you getting murdered in the street or snitched on (even if you did nothing wrong). It’s like “hey, we’re all in this shitty situation together so let’s not make it worse for anyone.” Especially when you consider that crime is often the only chance of escape and putting food on the table for an oppressed group of people.

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