Sunday, February 25, 2024

Language sneaks up on you

Making my way through the thousand pages of The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and published by the Oxford University Press, I came up short against a word: snuck

Some of you, I suspect, will be as horrified by this as by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. But you, like the House of Palaiologos, will be on the wrong side of history. 

Snuck, a variant of sneaked, lived for decades in the United States as a regional colloquialism. But in the twentieth century, and particularly in the current one, it picked up speed. 

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary says that 75% of its usage panel found snuck acceptable in 2008. 

Merriam-Webster notes that snuck "has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked." 

And Bryan Garner, in the fifth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage, writes that "with startling alacrity, it has become a casualism," perhaps because of "phonemic appeal." He continues: "In any event, the numbers don't lie: in AmE, snuck has become strongly predominant; in BrE, it has become about equal in frequency to sneaked." It crops up in legal opinions, and "the last year in which sneaked appeared more often in print than snuck was 2009."

Resistance remains. I don't care for snuck and do not recall ever having used it in speech or text. But resistance in language is usually futile. 

That's it. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.  


  1. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

  2. This post snuck up on me. I’ve never used “sneaked.” 🇨🇦

  3. Bryan, Bryan, Bryan. My first response was to wonder what, if anything, "phonemic appeal" means. My guess is that it is a fancy way of saying that people like the way the word sounds. As an explanation for the case in hand, this is wanting. Then I wondered about his use of "casualism." Again reduced to guessing, I would go with his meaning it is used in casual contexts. But "casualism" is an actual word with an actual, if niche, meaning unrelated to how he used it. Or is it? "Casualism" refers to situations ruled by chance. Perhaps he is saying that the rise of "snuck" is just one of those random things that happen. But if so, where does its phonemic appeal come in? Or perhaps this is an observation that language is essentially arbitrary. This true: indeed, so true as to be a banal observation. Why bring it up here specifically? More to the point, this looks suspiciously like over-fancy language used to obfuscate rather than enlighten. Or perhaps it's just bad writing.

  4. This is my fault, for abbreviating Garner's entry. "Casualism" is the term he uses for 'the least formal type of standard English,' 'standard only in informal contexts.' "Phonemic appeal" is explained by "the combination of the strong 'sn' beginning (think of 'snivel,' 'sneer,' 'snout,' etc.) and the strong 'ck' ending 9think of ;cluck,' 'puck,' 'stuck,' etc.), as if the word had some sort of onomatopoeic character."

  5. Fair enough, though inventing a non-standard definition of an existing (albeit rare) word is questionable. Also, this judgment seems inconsistent with the usage being "strongly predominant," including in legal opinions.

    As for "phonemic appeal," this seems unrigorous. What does it mean to say that the initial 'sn' and the terminal 'ck' are "strong?" How do we identify other strong sounds? Is an initial 'p' also strong? If so, then why don't we see "puck" as a past tense of "peak"?

    This fumbling around is also so unnecessary. English verbs have shifted between strong and weak inflections for centuries. Usually it is from strong to weak, but occasionally, as here, it goes in the opposite direction. Why "snuck"? Because it, with the verb shift to 'u,' resembles other strong inflection past tense (or, more often, past participle) forms: drunk, slunk, shrunk, and so on. Add to this that these things have a random element to them: casualism in the word's actual meaning.

    This is my general critique of Garner. He presents a simulacrum of rigor and objectivity that seems impressive so long as you don't look too closely.