Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading






And the occasional turtle.

Dear Word Detective: My goodness! Your site is just as bad (or good) as a dictionary. I start out to look up one thing and get sidetracked with all the other interesting things I find. However, my question concerns the word “snip” (plural “snips”), as in the nursery rhyme, “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of.” The word came up as my husband and I were discussing our grandson (who is the pride and joy of both his father and grandfather). Our discussion on possible sources ranged over a wide area, some rather improbable. Thanks for any help. — Betty.

snip08.pngYou just had to bring up that rhyme, didn’t you? That “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” thing has bothered me ever since I first heard it because it is so utterly unfair. Let’s see, girls are “sugar and spice and everything nice,” right? Doesn’t leave boys much to shoot for, does it? But even so, “snails”? As a small boy, snails gave me the wimwams. And since I was acquainted with the hygiene (or lack thereof) of our family dog, “puppy dog tails” wasn’t very appetizing either. As for “snips,” it sounded like the stuff left on the floor after a haircut. It doesn’t help that other versions of the poem (usually attributed to the 19th century British poet Robert Southey) substitute “slugs” or “snakes” for “snips,” or that some scholars think that the phrase was originally “snips of snails.” Oh goody, ragged bits of slimy snails and smelly dogs’ tails. No wonder I was lousy at baseball.

Assuming the word in the nursery rhyme really is “snips” all by itself, it’s probably the least offensive item in that libelous inventory of boyhood. The verb “to snip” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, probably derived from the Low German word “snippen” (to snip or shred), with the meaning “to take something quickly; to snatch.” The origin of “snip” is apparently “echoic,” i.e., the sound of the word imitates a quick, sharp action.

Pretty quickly, however, “snip” took on its modern meaning of “to cut, as if with scissors,” with the sense that the cut is small and quick. In the 18th century, “snip” begat the adjective “snippy,” originally meaning “stingy” but today meaning “nasty” or “coldly critical” (“Well, you don’t have to get snippy,” Al Gore to George W. Bush, Nov. 7, 2000).

“Snip” as a noun appeared at about the same time as the verb, meaning “a small piece of something cut off, especially of cloth.” Various figurative uses of “snip” have evolved over the years, from “a young or small person” to slang uses meaning “a sure thing” and “a bargain.” The sense of “snip” in “snips and snails,” etc., is probably “small pieces of things,” perhaps odds and ends of the sort collected by small boys. Speaking as one who used to routinely carry rocks and bits of string in his pockets, that’s OK with me, but I still don’t like snails.

22 comments to Snip

  • Emily

    Like “snippets” I guess :) makes sense. Though I prefer ‘slugs and snails’ I had never heard Snips and snails before.

  • Amish

    I was watching a cartoon with my little sister and they were showing snips, snails and puppy dog tails… the snips were pieces of cut hair like what you would find on the floor of a barber shop. I saw it on the cartoon Powerpuff Girls

  • Angus

    As an ex little boy. I can assure you the snips are the intentional or unintentional collection of sundry items found in the pockets, hats, jackets, lunch boxes etc of little boys.

    One recalls a CrackerJack advertisement in the ’60s. A boy does not have quite enough money to pay for his coveted snack. He emties his pockets on to the grocery counter. The contents ranged from rocks to marbles to a yoyo to a whistle…that dear freinds, are *snips*. Angus (who at heart is likely still a little boy) …now where did I put that puppy dog tail ;\

  • Terri

    I think puppy dog tails are a good thing. Every time you come home the puppy is wagging his or her tail with delight. Very honest response to happiness. I love the Cracker Jack reference to “snips”. I will go with that one. Snails? Maybe because little boys always seem to be dirty? Thanks for the information.

  • Meg

    When my children were babies, I too thought the boys section of this poem was unfair. But, as they’ve grown, I’ve been able to see the playful truth in both sides of this nursery rhyme. Snips absolutely conjures up the many little things boys are continuously collecting, leaving around, and interested in. But the term also makes me consider being quick with the tongue – snippy, talkative, teasing/joking/jovial, silly, and with an independent and active streak. Snails reminds me of boys love of the natural world, their wild abandon when playing in the elements, and their sometimes snails pace when having to do what they’d rather not be doing. Plus, there’s just something eternally interesting and naturally beautiful about a snail’s shell – and a boy’s personality. The puppy dogs’ tails – who wouldn’t see the similarity between an eager to please, playful, active, energetic, lovable puppy dog and a little boy? On the other hand, the sweetness, warmth, caring and calmness of a little girl can melt your heart and be “everything nice”, though I see a streak of wild, fun and sassy in the “spice” part of it all!

    • andria

      As a mom of two little boys ages 8 and 4, this comment on the post brought tears to my eyes. Yes, it’s the vibrant, curious, and playful boy that this old poem praises.

  • L.A.

    I’ve always adored this nursery rhyme and wondered the same thing ! Haha…Ithought parsnips.

    Thanks :)

  • L

    Interesting ideas, but I looked it up & snips are small eels, which makes more sense. I alluded it to what boys like.

  • Patricia

    I prefer this version:

    Snaps and snails and puppy dogs’ tails
    And dirty sluts in plenty
    Smell sweeter than roses in young men’s noses
    When the heart is one and twenty

    Marcel Proust
    In Search of Lost Time

  • Kate

    i grew up with knowing it as snakes and snails and puppy dog tails. I think it’s very appropriate as little boys were always into catching snakes and playing with snails. And what can be cuter than wagging puppy dog tails. I hate the snips version. The the heck is a snip!

  • Juju Beans

    I thought of circumcision (ouch) regarding the “snip”…

    Oh dear, I hope I haven’t added to the conundrum of our precious little boys- I birthed two ????????

  • Benjamin

    I grew up in Buffalo, NY and heard the “snips & snails” version. I came here to find out what a snip is. What I can tell you is this… I remember this being saidin the 70’s by girls, not boys, and it was intended to be feministic and cruel. By this, I mean, someone cruel created boys. They had to be cruel to cut the tails off of puppies. Snails are slimy dirt dwelling creatures that leave a trail wherever they go. I assume that snips meant that boys weren’t very well thought out and incomplete, so the Witch that created us just used whatever she had lying around from other evil brews. This is opposed to “everything nice”, which girls were created (probably by the Sugar Plum Fairy, lol). The good thing is I guess girls were meant to be cooked & consumed.

  • GayleH

    I’m 65 years young, born and raised in the US by an Australian mother and father of Swedish heritage. I grew up reading and hearing, ‘Snips and snails and puppy dog tails are what little boys are made of.” The connotation was never negative, just different. Little boys in the 18th Century (when this saying originated in nursery rhyme song form, circa 1820) were generally known for gathering small bits and pieces of “things” and putting them in their pockets, i.e. “snips” (snippets). The “snails” aspect represents their reluctance to hurry anywhere they were told to go, needing rather to meander and give other things of more importance their attention. Lastly, “puppy dog tails” are representative of a friendly, happy, innocent state of mind towards all things BOY. Puppies are mischievous, curious, and playful, which pretty much describes most little boys I’ve ever known!

  • Dani

    A “snip” is actually a small eel

  • Jim L

    I think Gail H explanation is the most logical explanation of this archaic phase I have ever heard of.
    Thank you Gail

  • Fox

    we grew up with ; rats and snails and puppy dog tail. i guess Aussies have a way of reinventing lol

  • Odenswords

    I am really trying to believe that people out there think that ancient writers of children’s poems could not misspell a word. Or even make one up? Snipes and Snails and puppy dog tails. A snipe is a real bird children are known for Snipe hunting with a stick ” Scout leaders know they will never catch or even get close enough to do harm and they have been chasing them since the dawn of man… So Snipe ? Detectives?

  • Angus

    I grew up hearing “rails and snails and puppy dog tails” and always wondered which kind of rail we were talking about: birds, fence railing, or protests against outrageous fortune. My mother was Scottish, my father from many generations of Midwesterners and I would have first heard the expression in the St. Louis area.

  • Pipi

    Snig is snygge in Middle English meaning slug or snail.

  • Danny Lee Davis Jr

    Snails are delicious, as long as you don’t overcook them:-)

Leave a Reply to Angus Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!