Lifting the sneck

Here’s a word I don’t recall noticing before: sneck. I came across it in John Gordon’s short story ‘Left in the Dark’, in a Ghost Stories anthology chosen by Robert Westall:

…the stairway became narrower until there was scarcely enough room for them and their luggage, and their free hands were holding a painted rail. They came to a landing of bare boards and one small window.

“Can’t be any farther, can it?” said Jack. “We must be practically under the roof with the birdies.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, hinny.” Pauline imitated his Newcastle accent. “There’s one more stage yet.” She went to a plain door that had a latch instead of a handle. “Lift the sneck,” she said as she raised the latch and pulled back the door, “and here we are. Almost.”

Sneck is a dialect word from Scotland, also used in the north of England, referring to the latch or lever of a gate, door, window, etc. (see photo, below).* It’s also a verb: to sneck the door is to close or fasten its latch; or you could “put the door on the sneck”. A door that’s “off the sneck” has the catch left off; if it’s sneckless, there’s no latch.

Sneck was around in Middle English as snekke. The OED says it’s obscurely related to snatch (n.); Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary makes the same connection. The Dictionary of the Scots Language has a wealth of dialectal examples from the last few centuries.

The word has produced several phrases. A sneck drawer or sneckdraw is a “latch lifter”, meaning a sly, crafty or stealthy person, or even a cheat. Similarly, to draw or lift a sneck can mean to act in a sneaky, surreptitious fashion, or to insinuate oneself thus into a situation.

A sneck-lifter can be a burglar, a ghost, or someone who goes door to door in the traditional “First Footing” ritual on Hogmanay. Most elaborately: according to Jennings Brewery, who make Sneck Lifter Ale, the phrase can mean

a man’s last sixpence which enabled him to lift the latch of a pub door and buy himself a pint, hoping to meet friends there who might treat him to one or two more.

A sneck-bend is a hook-shaped bend you’d find in a river or road, while a sneck-band is a latchstring, a piece of string tied to a sneck/latch and passed through a hole to the outside of the door or gate. A sneck-posset is a fastened latch, and give a sneck posset is an idiom equivalent to “give someone the cold shoulder” (i.e., give an unfriendly reception).

Sneck up is an imperative meaning “be silent” or “shut up”. Jonathon Green, in Chambers Slang Dictionary, dates Sneck up! (also Snick up!) to the late 16C–mid-17C, and describes it as an exclamation of dismissal, as in “The hell with you!”, taking its literal meaning as draw the latch and go to the other side of the door.

In a helpful article about the word for Caledonian Mercury, Betty Kirkpatrick says it even appears in head gear: a snecker-doun is “a man’s cloth cap, known in Scots as a bunnet, with a stud fastener on the peak”. Lifting this sneck has opened up a charming store of phrases previously unknown to me, both literal and metaphorical.

Edit: A fine example from Texas, 1909: “…and the Lord said unto Moses — ‘Sneck that door!'” via @TweetsofOld, who also found sneck off used as a typesetting term in Minnesota, 1899.

*

* Sneck can also refer to a cut, a nose, or a type of small stone used to fill gaps in a wall, but I’m ignoring these senses here.

[cropped image from Wikimedia Commons]
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14 Responses to Lifting the sneck

  1. klyse3 says:

    Never heard of it! That was interesting, thanks for my lesson of the day!

  2. korystamper says:

    I am familiar with this term by way of the Appalachian dialect my dad grew up speaking! None of his kin are Scots and they weren’t from an area settled by Scots, so I have no good explanation for why they used “sneck.”

    They also would say “off the sneck” to mean “drunk,” but that may be an Appalachian one-off. They do seem to have an overabundance of idioms for “drunk.”

  3. Diane Nicholls says:

    My father-in-law (west Yorkshire origins) uses snecklifter a lot in contexts where ‘ligger’, ‘sponger’ or ‘bludger’ would be substitutable, i.e. (approx.) someone who uses wily means or generally hangs around in the right place to get something for nothing. He caught me lurking (innocently!) in his pantry once and accused me of ‘snecklifting’.

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I recently did a post about “schtum” after hearing it for the first time on “A Taste of Frost,” used as one of the senses of “sneck”; “to keep quiet.” Here in New Jersey, if you speak Yinglish, you might have a piece of cake as a small sneck before bedtime.

  5. Stan says:

    klyse3: You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

    Kory: It’s a catchy word. I wonder where else it has popped up. Off the sneck meaning drunk is another new one on me. But I suspect almost all dialects have an overabundance of terms for drunk.

    Diane: That’s another interesting usage. Maybe you weren’t snecklifting in your father-in-law’s pantry, but it sounds like you might have been snack-lifting!

    Marc: I enjoyed your post on schtum, and am surprised the word doesn’t have more currency in the US. I don’t think I’ll be reviving Sneck up!, but I am tempted by sneck-lifter.

  6. europhile says:

    My Belfast mother would have told me to “put the door on the ‘snick'”.

  7. Stan says:

    europhile: That seems to be an occasional variant. There’s also a verb snick meaning “move or slide with a click”, as in “the lock snicked back”, but that could be a bolt rather than a sneck.

  8. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hmm… just curious how many of those twisty sneck-bends one might encounter on a leisurely cruise down the Sneck….Oops!…. that would be, Snake river —- the longest tributary of the mighty Columbia, up in the U.S. Pacific Northwest?

    The Snake river apparently got its official name from a misinterpretation of native Shoshone sign language by early non-aboriginal explorers snooping around the region— a fluid S-shaped gesture of the hands simulating a swimming salmon.

    The encroaching ‘white-men’ took this wavy hand gesturing to be the characteristic motion of your typical snake, and thus the name of this marked serpentine watercourse was born.

    Re/ the term “snecker-doun”, or as the Scots would alternatively say, “bunnet”, referring to “a man’s cloth cap… with a stud fastener”, that’s a totally new one for me. (The curious name, that is.)

    I always called those rather dapper, flattish hats—an English driving (as in motoring) cap— often sported by U.K. country squire types putt-putting along in their spiffy little Mini-Coopers, Sunbeams, or Triumphs….. or, more upscale Jags, Bentleys, and Rolls Royces.

    Anecdotally speaking, I find it curious that one rarely sees the “sneck-doun” worn unfastened, where the full configuration of the hat when puffed out more resembles a variant of a railway engineers cap. (Not a great look in motoring down the road, but quite fitting, in purely aesthetic terms, for the rails, as it were.)

    I wonder if any scribe, perhaps of Scottish lineage, has use the phrase “sneck-in-the-grass”, describing a rather sneaky, scheming, undesirable?

    Well as the gobsmacked snake charmer would exclaim…… from perfectly translated Sinhalese (that’s Sri Lankan): “I say old chappy…. the sneck is definitely out of the basket now!” (groan)

    Followed by, “My ‘mongoose’ is definitely cooked!” (groan no. 2)

  9. Stan says:

    Alex, that’s a really interesting story about the origin of the Snake river name. I hadn’t heard it before. It’s easy to imagine a hand gesture of salmon swimming being misanalysed as a snake’s movement, the two creatures’ motions being quite congruent out of their immediate context.

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    I was somewhat curious as to whether there was an actual Salmon River up in the same general neck-of-the-(Pacific Northwest)-woods, as the aforementioned Snake River.

    Wouldn’t you just know it…. there is!

    The mighty Salmon River, some 425-miles in running-length, cuts thru central Idaho in a roughly north-westerly direction from its mountain source.

    Ironically, its terminus, or more precisely, its confluence, is w/ the Snake River, which flows west, eventually into the Pacific.

    In taking a gander at a simple map of the basic configuration of the Salmon River, it would be safe to say that sneck-bends abound on this twisting river course, as well.

    Apparently, the Salmon flows thru Native American Nez Perce ancestral territory. Wouldn’t it have been a hoot if say explorers, Lewis & Clark, had misread the Nez Perce gestural signage for a slithering snake, and ended up adopting “salmon” as the river’s official appellation. Kind of the flip-side of the Snake River naming snafu.

    (OK. I’m getting a little silly here.)

    Interestingly, in the realm of physical geography, a “U”-shaped bend in a river course, (or the land enclosed by said characteristically ‘bent’ formation), is defined as an “oxbow”.

    “Oxbow” was originally defined as “a U-shaped piece of wood placed under and around the neck of an ox w/ its upper ends in the bar of the yoke”.*

    I guess “sneck-bend” and “oxbow” are pretty much synonymous terms, although not occurring w/ any regularity in common, everyday parlance. (Unless you’re a physical geographer, of course.)

    *Got this ‘oxbow” definition from Dictionary.com. (Seemed fairly authoritative.)

  11. […] is called “Lifting the sneck”, which by coincidence is the name of my blog post from August on the word sneck. But a great portion of The Horologicon’s words were pleasingly obscure and even downright […]

  12. Declan Lewis says:

    Northeastern English dialect: a “netty sneck” is the latch on an outside toilet/earth closet, or “netty”, for old houses that had no lavatory indoors, or indeed running water. The word “netty” perhaps is derived and shorterned from the Italian word… I’ll leave it there, as I need to use the “loo” now.

  13. Stan says:

    Declan: That’s an interesting note. I’ve come across the word netty in print here and there, but it’s not in my dialect. The Wiktionary talk page mentions the possible Italian origin, among others.

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