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Snicker & Snickerdoodle

Bad horsie.  No cookie.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you find the etymologies of both “snicker” and “snickerdoodle”?  My friend and I have been wondering about both words, and I think he’s probably forgotten to ask.  I strongly suspect that they are of different origins of course, especially as their meanings appear to be unrelated.  But the best I’ve found for “snicker” is a guess that it might be an onomatopoeia, which would make me snicker even if it turned out to be right, because it’s such an easy way out; as for “snickerdoodle,” it’s hard to even find in a dictionary that gives etymologies. — Elizabeth S. Q. G.

Well, I waited a decent interval, but your friend never wrote to ask.  Then again, his query may have been nabbed by my spam filter and flipped into purgatory (my spam folder) and, ten days later, automatically blasted into orbit.  I try to remember to check the queue of suspects for innocent billets-doux every week, but my mind tends to wander.  I suppose, in a pinch, I could ask Homeland Security to send me a copy of anything really important.

“Snicker” is a great word, meaning, of course, “to laugh in a half-suppressed or concealed manner.”  We “snicker” when what we see or hear is funny, but takes place under circumstances which would make a full-throated guffaw impolitic or unhealthy, as when the boss makes a fool of himself or the emperor proudly parades his new clothes.  The “snicker” is the sound of one’s sense of humor wrestling with one’s sense of self-preservation.

As a term for a reaction as old as human society itself, “snicker” in English is relatively recent, dating to the late 17th century.  It is indeed “onomatopoeic” (or “echoic” or “imitative”) in origin, intended to evoke the actual sound of a snicker (just as “guffaw” imitates the sound of a loud laugh).  Interestingly, humans are not the only animal that is said to “snicker.”  The sounds made by horses more frequently known as “neighing” and “nickering” (both also imitative in origin) are also called “snickering,” although a horse’s “snicker” is a very loud noise and tends to indicate alarm or annoyance rather than amusement.

I’m surprised that more dictionaries don’t define “snickerdoodle,” because it’s a classic simple American cookie, just a soft sugar cookie sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may take its name from a simple combination of “snicker” and “doodle,” but doesn’t suggest why.  “Doodle” is an old word meaning “simple minded person” (from the German “dudeltopf,” literally “night cap”), usually used today to mean a drawing idly done by someone while thinking of something else.  My best guess is that the original inspiration for “snickerdoodle” came from the sense that the cookie was simple (“doodle”), easy to make, and good enough to merit at least a snicker’s worth of excitement.

Blue Streak

Pay no attention to the twitching.

Dear Word Detective:  I was wondering if you could help me find the origin of the phrase “blue streak” as in “talk a blue streak” or “curse a blue streak.”  The only thing I could find was that it might have something to do with lightning. — Eric.

Good question, but before we begin, I would strongly advise against having anything to do with lightning, and I speak from personal experience.  Three years ago this month I had a close encounter with ball lightning (yes, it most certainly does exist), and some people say I haven’t been quite right ever since.  Apart from a tendency to cry when I eat oatmeal and bark when I’m angry, however, I can’t imagine what they’re talking about.  Anyway, lightning is definitely nasty stuff.

Onward.  Human beings have identified a wide spectrum of colors (and catalog copywriters are constantly inventing new ones), but when it comes to popular figures of speech, “blue” takes the prize for both number and variety of senses.  We speak, for example, of sadness or depression as “the blues,” although no one has ever come up with a convincing explanation why.  “Blues” music does often center on depressing “blue” subjects (lover left, dog died, etc.), but that “blue” may actually be a reference to the genre’s use of “blue notes,” halfway between proper scale notes.  Elsewhere, “blue blood” is said to signify royalty or high social class, but was originally just a reference to very light skin, which made the oxygen-rich blood in one’s veins visible under the skin.  The opposite of the blue-blooded idle rich are, of course, “blue-collar” workers, so-called for the denim shirts that once were standard factory wear.

Some towns in the US still enforce “blue laws” forbidding or restricting certain activities on Sundays, but the origin of the term has been lost in the mists of time along with the Puritans who concocted the laws.  And, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the slightly antiquated (but equally mysterious) adjective “blue” meaning “obscene,” which dates to the 1820s (and thus predates “blue movies” by a century).  It’s possible, however, that “blue” in the “porn” sense arose from the term “blue laws” being generalized to mean any kind of censorious legislation.

Meanwhile, as the stock exchange tumbles and staid “blue chip” stocks take a beating, it’s appropriate to note that “blue chip” meaning “top rank, best” comes from the highest denomination chips in the very un-staid game of poker, which are traditionally blue.

All of which brings us to “blue streak,” which means “with great intensity or speed” and originated in the US in the early 18th century.  In all likelihood, the term did arise by analogy to the speed and force of a bolt of lightning, especially in “talk a blue streak,” meaning to speak rapidly and excitedly.  The “blue” in “curse a blue streak” probably also invokes “blue” in the sense of “obscene.”  A similar phrase, “blue blazes” (“And the two Jacobs swore like blue blazes agin him,”1858), was originally a reference to the fires of Hell, where it is said that brimstone burns with a pale blue flame.


Clods say the darnedest things.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband and I do spinning and weaving demonstrations at Scottish festivals in Colorado and Wyoming throughout the summer months.  This year, for the first time, we have been asked, not once but several times, as we sat down at our loom if we were “looming.”  I patiently explain that “looming” would entail standing menacingly over someone in an impatient or threatening manner, while we were weaving cloth to make into scarves.  So why do we not “loom” at a loom? — Darla.

Hmm.  And you say the tourists have begun asking this corny question just this year?  I suspect you may be unfortunate victims of the current weakness of the US dollar in the global economy.  Ordinarily, you see, those folks would be strolling the streets of Barcelona or Paris,  photographing phone booths and demanding cheeseburgers.  But sky-high airfares (as the TV newscritters love to say) and ruinous exchange rates have kept the poor dears at home this year.  I can only suggest that you feign an inability to speak English.

Then again, that’s actually not a bad question they’re asking.  I’m surprised that none of them has taken the next step and asked if your loom is “store bought” or an “heirloom loom.”

Meanwhile, back at your question, there are actually two entirely separate “looms” in English, drawn from two very different sources.  But although both are commonly used today, there’s little chance of confusion between the two because, in modern usage, one is a noun and the other a verb.

The noun “loom,” the machine on which you weave fabric, is the older of the two.  Our modern “loom” is derived from the Old English word “geloma,” which meant simply “utensil or tool.”  This was its meaning for several hundred years, but today “loom” is only used in this general “tool” sense in Scotland.  Over the centuries, “loom” has also been applied to such disparate items as “a bucket or tub” and “a boat,” but the only meaning in common use today is “a machine for turning yarn or thread into fabric,” which first came into use in the early 15th century.  This sort of “loom” is also a verb meaning “to weave,” but that form is rarely used today.

The term “heirloom,” which first appeared in the 15th century, harks back to that general “tool or utensil” meaning of “loom,” and originally meant any tool or piece of equipment that would legally pass to the heirs upon the death of the owner.  Since the early 17th century, we have used “heirloom” to mean anything passed down from generation to generation within a family.

The other sort of  “loom,” used almost exclusively as a verb, has three main meanings:  “to come into view as a massive and indistinct form” (“The cliffs loomed above us as our boat neared the foggy shore”), “to appear, especially in the imagination, as large and threatening” (“The specter of the Great Depression of the 1930s looms over Middle America”), and “to seem imminent” (“Although bankruptcy loomed, Larry bought yet another car”).  The root of this “loom” was most likely Scandinavian, and when it first appeared in English in the early 17th century it was a nautical term meaning “to move up and down” (as a boat would rock) or “to approach or come into view slowly,” as one ship might approach another or the shoreline.