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shameless pleading

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.

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