Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wordmall Blog

Monday, February 18, 2008


Ed from Alden, Michigan, called during Tuesday’s show to ask where the word snitch--meaning an informant--came from. In my misbegotten youth, we used it the same way, but we also used it in the sense to steal something. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a confirming citation from the N.Y. Times, 6 June 1904, 9: “They reached Coney Island by snitching rides.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the informant who turns state’s evidence against a confrere, the OED slaps on the obscure origin label. But I think we can pick out some tight connections even if we can’t sniff out the origin.

Snitch started life meaning a fillip on the nose. An early citation is Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, 1676: “Snitch . . . a fillip.” It might be a good idea to define fillip at this point: “A movement made by bending the last joint of a finger against the thumb and suddenly releasing it (so as to propel some small object, or merely as a gesture); a smart stroke or tap given by this means.” [OED]

By 1700, snitch meant the nose itself. B.E., Gentleman, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew: “Snite his Snitch, Wipe his Nose, or give him a good Flap on the Face.”

By 1785, we have arrived at snitch, an informer who turns King’s or Queen’s evidence. It is thus defined in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

So we see a straight line of development from a fillip on the nose to an informant. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the word nose itself had a related slang meaning: “a spy or informer, especially for the police” [OED]. Francis Grose defines it that way in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue [1785].

So this much is clear: snitch and nose were synonyms, and both shared the slang meaning of an informant. I notice that the phrase “to thrust one’s nose into someone else’s business” has a citation dating back to 1611. I have no direct proof, but making a connection between that and the word snitch does not seem to stretch things beyond credulity.

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