“Snuck” sneaked in

Here’s a strange one. The Awl, a website of news, culture and opinion, complained this week about the Paris Review’s use of the word snuck, a variant of sneaked. The Awl‘s post linked to an earlier one called “The Awful Rise of Snuck”, complete with a we’re-being-funny-but-really-we-mean-it tag: “it is sneaked bitches”. (Bear in mind that The Awl’s motto, Be Less Stupid, is “intended with some humor”.)

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates sneak to 1560 and says it may have been formed from Middle English sniken, from proto-Germanic *sneikanan (q.v. snake). Sneak’s etymology “seems to be within reach, but at every step something goes wrong”. Snuck came later — in the late 19C. — yet the origins of both words are, in Robert Burchfield’s phrase, “shrouded in mystery”. From his new edition of Fowler’s:

First recorded in the 16C., [sneak] seems to have emerged from some uncharted dialectal area and made its way swiftly into the language of playwrights . . . . Just as mysteriously, in a little more than a century, a new past tense form, snuck, has crept and then rushed out of dialectal use in America, first into the areas of use that lexicographers label jocular or uneducated, and, more recently, has reached the point where it is a virtual rival of sneaked in many parts of the English-speaking world. But not in Britain, where it is unmistakably taken to be a jocular or non-standard form. . . . What the future holds for snuck is unpredictable.

The shift from sneaked to snuck is unusual: when verb endings change, they usually go from strong to weak. (Dig, string, and dive are other examples of weak-to-strong drift.) Burchfield points out that no other English verb with an –eek or –eak ending makes a past tense –uck; he lists creak, freak, leak, peak, peek, reek, seek, squeak, streak, wreak, and shriek.

Yet the rise of snuck has been swift and irresistible. Comparing a few dictionary entries, because it’s fun and fascinating, we find broad recognition of snuck‘s growing popularity and acceptability (which Merriam-Webster has tracked in detail), along with some geographical notes. First, a sneaky photographic interlude:

European hare being sneaky in the long grass

The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says:

snuck occurs frequently in Standard English, though it is still sometimes limited in the most Formal Edited English


past and past participle snuck has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked. It is most common in the United States and Canada but has also been spotted in British and Australian English.

Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998 — I’ll update this if the new edition has a revised judgement):

snuck is a nonstandard past tense and past participle of sneak common in American dialectal and informal speech and writing. The standard past form is sneaked. Surprisingly, though, snuck appears half as often in American writing as sneaked

American Heritage Dictionary usage note:

Widespread use of snuck has become more common with every generation. It is now used by educated speakers in all regions. Formal written English is more conservative than other varieties, of course, and here snuck still meets with much resistance. Many writers and editors have a lingering unease about the form, particularly if they recall its nonstandard origins. And 67 percent of the Usage Panel disapproved of snuck in our 1988 survey. Nevertheless, an examination of recent sources shows that snuck is sneaking up on sneaked. Snuck was almost 20 percent more common in newspaper articles published in 1995 than it was in 1985. Snuck also appears in the work of many respected columnists and authors

Update: The fifth edition (2016) of the American Heritage Dictionary shows a dramatic swing in favour of snuck:

Widespread use of snuck in the United States has become more common with every generation. It is now used by educated speakers in all regions and was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2008 survey. This stands in marked contrast to the 67 percent that disapproved of snuck twenty years earlier. The more traditional form sneaked, which predominates in British English, is fully acceptable as well, with 90 percent approving it in 2008.

Random House Dictionary usage note (via Dictionary.com):

[snuck] is not so common in highly formal or belletristic writing, where sneaked is more likely to occur. Snuck is the only spoken past tense and past participle for many younger and middle-aged persons of all educational levels in the U.S. and Canada. Snuck has occasionally been considered nonstandard, but it is so widely used by professional writers and educated speakers that it can no longer be so regarded.

To which the prescriptivist grammarian James J. Kilpatrick reacted by “beseech[ing] your assistance”

in preserving “sneaked” as the past tense of “sneak.” [Random House’s] tolerant view has not snuck up on me; it has sneaked up on me. I will have none of it. To my ear, “snuck” has a jocular sound. It has none of the scary, stealthy, furtive ring of “sneaked.” In a word, it doesn’t sound sneaky. Harumph!

Apparently, we can’t have words sounding jocular; and once jocular, always jocular. Kilpatrick’s sense that snuck doesn’t sound sneaky is just a personal feeling, one that contrasts with Roy Blount’s, below. Such feelings are fine, but they’re subjective and shouldn’t be imposed on the population at large. There’s also flat-out disapproval in this article in Time magazine:

because many people wrongly consider the past tense of sneak to be snuck (instead of sneaked), the word has been promoted from “chiefly dialect” in RHD-I to full respectability here

Dr. Astro & Sneaky Snake sneaking into a room in RTE’s “Wanderly Wagon”

Grammar Girl kindly alerted me to her video about the controversy, but I can’t agree with her assessment that in Britain, sneaked is “the only proper past tense form”; searches on the Times and Guardian websites indicate otherwise, as does the word’s inclusion in several books cited by the British National Corpus.

There’s no guidance in the style guides at the Times or Guardian, or at the Economist for that matter. The AP Stylebook advises the use of sneaked — “Do not use the colloquial snuck” — but that’s hardly surprising. At Wordnik, snuck appears on both “Ugly” and “Favourite Verbs and Verb Forms” lists.

The word is clearly contentious, but there is no sound justification for dismissing it outright in semi-formal contexts — it’s probably ill-suited to some, but for how much longer? If anything, sneaked may be doomed: I’ve read a lot of comments saying it sounds wrong or weird.

All of which makes the fuss over snuck seem increasingly misplaced. From John Jeremiah Sullivan’s witty response to The Awl on the Paris Review blog:

It ought to go against any writer’s grain when people try to pass off schoolmarmish grammarianism as a concern for style. . . . [A] person needs to be objecting to a word on some grounds—that it’s inexact or obscure, that it’s confusing or unbeautiful. What is The Awl’s problem with snuck? As far as one can tell, somebody told them at some point that it was preferable to use sneaked. Why, though? We’ve been saying and writing snuck for at least a hundred and twenty-five years now, in high and low contexts. Everybody knows exactly what it means.

Which brings us nicely to Language Log, where late last year Mark Liberman posted an example of extreme snuck-peeving complete with a strict-teacher reference (“My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Klock, would be spinning in her grave”), before plotting the snuck-ward trend in several corpora and newspapers. Geoff Nunberg, in a comment to the post, guesses that

the spread of snuck, if not its inception, owed something to a perception of it as a humorous regionalism that was somehow morphologically apt: as Roy Blount said in a comment on his usage panel ballot: “I like ‘snuck’ — it’s sneakier.”

In conclusion, then, The Awl and Jennifer Garner were wrong, and the Paris Review and Conan O’Brien were right.

* * *

Updates: Language Log has a short post on what it calls Snuck-gate. It’s worth a detour, as always, for the discussion — and for Mark Liberman’s phrase “snuckological scholarship”. In the comments, David Denison has brought my attention to Richard M. Hogg’s study of how snuck might have arisen: Snuck: The Development of Irregular Preterite Forms. Most of Hogg’s paper is available here.

The Awl has posted another entry on the matter, with an argument as weak as snuck is strong: “NEVER, never, shall snuck be a word”. Too late.

Although John E. McIntyre neither likes nor uses snuck, he acknowledges that it“is not going away, and decisions about its use are purely judgments of taste and style rather than determinations of what is right or wrong grammatically”.

Mark Liberman runs a corpus analysis and shows graphically how “the frequency of both forms has increased over time” but “there’s also a clear snuckward trend”. In a follow-up post about the unexpected attractiveness of snuck, he concludes that “basically, sneaked is toast”.

See also Liberman’s corpus analysis of snuck vs. sneaked in different contexts, and a follow-up post that shows Google Books “replicating the snuckward trend” in American English.

There’s a short and lively discussion about snuck and its ilk at Language Hat.

I neglected to say that I found no mention of sneak or snuck in Fowler’s original dictionary or in Ernest Gowers’s slightly revised edition. But there’s an entry at Random House from 1998, which confirms most of the observations above and adds to the consensus that snuck is fine in most contexts:

In present-day English, snuck is extremely widespread throughout the country, even among educated speakers, and in the speech of younger people it is the dominant form. . . . Many people object to snuck, but that has been changing and is likely to change further as younger snuck-ful speakers age and enter the mainstream. . . . In British English sneaked remains the usual past form, with snuck appearing only in humorous or nonstandard use.

In Words and Rules (1999), his book about irregular verbs, Steven Pinker writes the following:

Snuck has the distinction of being the most recent irregular to enter the standard language, with a first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1887. According to a recent survey, most younger Americans have no problem with snuck, though most older Americans frown on it. . . . According to one theory, snuck sneaked into English via sound symbolism. Its connotations of quickness, furtiveness, and mild disreputability brought to mind the sound pattern of slunk and suck, especially since all three end in a suitably crisp k. A less far-fetched explanation is that sneak is close in pronunciation to sting, strike, dig, and especially stick—an ĭ is just a lax, short ē, and n is basically t or d pronounced through the nose, as any cold-sufferer can tell you. The failure to rhyme with creak and tweak was no impediment, because similarity in the gestures of articulation matter more than similarity in sound, and that makes it tempting to analogize stick–stuck to sneak–snuck.

Emily Brewster of Merriam-Webster sent these two Ngrams my way, via Twitter, which show emphatically how snuck has sneaked up on us.

[image source]

78 Responses to “Snuck” sneaked in

  1. language hat says:

    It will come as no surprise that I enthusiastically agree. Snuck is a wonderful word, short, snappy, and vivid. No, Sir, when a man is tired of newly created strong verbs, he is tired of life.

  2. Yvonne says:

    While I agree that dig, string and dive all demonstrably go to softer endings in the past tense, I wondered if ‘dived’ is acceptable usage or utterly incorrect? I don’t particularly like to read or hear ‘dove’ but acknowledge this may be a personal fingernails-on-a-blackboard irritant.

  3. Simon Cauchi says:

    “Dived” is the usual BrE past tense of “dive”. “Dove” is an Americanism. I still remember my shock on first encountering it when reading Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.

  4. Yvonne, if you used “dove” as the pp of “dive” in Britain, people would stare at you in bewilderment. “Dived” is the only possible expression in BrE.

  5. Stuart says:

    This has me wondering about Zild usage. In my own idiolect it’s probably 70/30 “snuck” over “sneaked”, and I suspect that is possibly about right for NZE as a whole.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Odd this. I can’t remember using “sneaked” but always “snuck”. But then again, I used “sneaky” as in “they are so sneaky” a lot when sneaking to my parents about my four nasty brothers.

  7. Tim says:

    Hmm, I’ve always used snuck as the past tense form of sneak. Two of those examples cites, wreak and seek have strange past tense forms too: wrought and sought.

    I doubt we will see the introduction of any more irregular verbs. I’m pretty sure that sneak is considered to be one of the 150 that already exist in our language.

    I have a question for Stan’s readers: how do you conjugate the past tense form of light? I say “lit” for both past participle and past perfect, and yet I’ve noticed that American authors tend to use “lighted”.

  8. Tim says:

    I meant “cited” rather than “cites”. It’s my poor typing skills there…

  9. Stan says:

    language hat: No surprise! And I agree: snuck is pithy and precise. Sometimes I find sneaked works better, but I’m very glad to see snuck gaining ground.

    Yvonne: Dove and dived are both standard in AmE, e.g. “He dove in and saved her life” (Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon); “Scott dived off the wagon” (Irvin Faust, Scott Fitzgerald Has Left the Garden of Allah). Dove is often considered odd or incorrect in BrE, as Simon’s and Martyn’s comments show, but M-W says it’s an acceptable variant, and that geography determines usage.

    Stuart: Thanks for the insight into NZ usage. Your tally makes me wish I’d been keeping a closer eye ear on my own usage!

    WWW: I use sneaky too, and I don’t think it’s in any danger of being displaced by snucky, which to me sounds like a nickname: “Snookie”.

    There’s a funny use of sneaky in the horror film Ravenous, but it’s the punchline to an extremely violent scene, so you might prefer to take my word for it.

    Tim: After wrought and sought I took to wondering if snought would work. I suppose it could, but it just didn’t happen. Regarding new irregular verbs: such shifts are comparatively rare, but I see no reason to doubt they’ll keep happening.

  10. Yvonne says:

    Thank you all for sorting out my ‘dived’/ ‘dove’ issue. I hardly ever know the linguistic reasons behind correct usage, I only know what sounds right to my own ear. Am quite pleased to know that I can continue to avoid ‘dove’ on the rare occasions I need to write/say ‘dived’.

  11. language hat says:

    hardly ever know the linguistic reasons behind correct usage, I only know what sounds right to my own ear.

    And that is all ye need to know. English would be much better off if people trusted their own ears rather than succumbing to the nostrums peddled by quack grammarians.

  12. zhoen says:

    I’m with Roy Blount. Sneaked does sound more formal, but that doesn’t make it sound sneakier than snuck. I’m never quite sure which one is correct, but snuck conveys the feeling of the word better, in my ears.

  13. Wimbrel says:

    Is “sneak” even the kind of word that’s likely to appear in Formal Edited English, as that OUP blog refers to it? It sounds unsavory, whatever you take its participle to be.

  14. Sean Jeating says:

    For my ears both the weak and the strong version do sound reasonable.
    Now would I pretty often not only listen to my ears but also to my stomach (German idiom), which is why intuitively I’d prefer sneaked when something’s being done slowly and secretly (Trying to avoid waking his parents he sneaked upstairs), while snuck seems fine with quick action. (Entering the house he heard his parents laughing in the living room; quickly he snuck upstairs.)
    Perhaps too German a way of thinking? Anyway, it’s always a great relief for the serene dilettant to have more than one option.
    Thanks for another lesson, Stan.

  15. Stan says:

    zhoen: Which one you use is a matter of context and personal taste, not correctness, since both forms are fine. As Language Hat said in response to Yvonne, our own ears are generally a good guide.

    Wimbrel: Its unsavouriness will vary greatly according to the reader and the surrounding text. As for its appearance in Formal Edited English: browsing examples in the BNC, I see sneak pop up in all sorts of books, from Practical Fishkeeping to Black Holes and Uncle Albert, from Ronald Bergan’s biography of Dustin Hoffman to A. S. Byatt’s Booker-Prize-winning Possession.

    Sean: To my mind, your ears seem reasonable, and your stomach too! The two words will carry different connotations for different speakers, and sneaked‘s closer similarity to sneaky might help it hold a niche in the long term, for some people in some contexts. I’m with Julian Gough, whose concise reaction (“Sneaked and snuck are both great words”) I read only after I’d written the post. I happily agree with your conclusion: having such options allows users to express particular subtleties of sound and association.

  16. ALiCe__M says:

    I like both words, and I marvel at the fact that the Brits can have endless discussions about language just like the French! (but I find the TV scene totally staged).

  17. Stan says:

    Alice: It’s like a toy people never tire of! And not just people from France and Britain but from Ireland, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, America, and possibly other countries — counting just the comments above. Conan and Jennifer’s disagreement was probably prepared at least partially, but I still find it funny.

  18. Claudia says:

    How much I enjoy coming here and listening to all of you. I learned English by immersion, in my twenties. Until I could really consult the proper books, and understand the rules, being a musician, I trusted my ears. Also my instinct, and the people around me. I’ve been well accepted by English-speaking people, one step at the time. Actually, the only people who corrected me were know-it-all French-Canadians who had English degrees, and multiple books proving their expertise. I didn’t reject the corrections, but they were not much fun. Often, I was tempted to give up thinking I would never make it. The only reason I kept going was my great desire to read English poetry in the original language. With toil, sweat and tears, I achieved my goal.

    I’m so, so grateful that, now, with many of your posts, finally the fun snuck or sneaked in. Merci de tout coeur, Stan!

  19. Hmm I wonder if snuck would give the QESers an attack of the vapours….

  20. The Ridger says:

    @Tim: I find that “light” is split by meaning. I personally use “lit” for all the meanings (I lit the candle, a well-lit room, he lit out for the hills) but many people prefer “lighted” for the “lighted the candle” sense.

    I suppose it’s similar to “shine”, where “the sun shone” but “I shined my shoes”.

  21. Stan says:

    Claudia: C’est un plaisir de t’avoir ici! Your dedication has paid off: as a well-read musician and careful student you have a more intuitive grasp of English than many a native speaker.

    Jams: I didn’t see it spuck about on their website.

    The Ridger: Thanks for that. Like you and Tim, I use lit rather than lighted, but I occasionally hear the latter and have no objection to it.

  22. Ben Hemmens says:

    I just about *shat* myself laughing.

  23. Szwagier says:

    I’ve always used “dove” as the past form of “dive”, and I’m 100% British. But I was brought up in Edinburgh, so perhaps that makes a difference.

  24. nbmandel says:

    I use and love “snuck,” but it retains for me an edge of comedy and of deliberate low and conversational register, so when I saw it in Zachary Mason’s novel THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY, which is mildly heightened in style, it rang very harshly to me. The same with Mason’s use of “pled” for “pleaded,” which came up several times. I have to suppose that Mason’s otherwise seemingly sensitive ear doesn’t hear this register shift at all. I am, of course, a decade or two older than Mason.


  25. koj says:

    asked mr KOJ about it, he immediately responded with ‘snuck’. And he’s a nice british public school-boy, at the roots.

  26. Trevor says:

    I like snuck. But I have a question. What about “shat” as the past tense of, well you know what. I know you know what is already slang.

  27. language hat says:

    Often, I was tempted to give up thinking I would never make it. The only reason I kept going was my great desire to read English poetry in the original language. With toil, sweat and tears, I achieved my goal.

    This describes my experience with Russian as well. Poetry is a great motivator!

  28. Stan says:

    Ben: I don’t know whether or not I’m pleased to hear that.

    Szwagier: It may well do — there’s a huge amount of dialectal variation in Britain, but I haven’t investiaged dove vs. dived in much detail.

    nbmandel: Curious, the disharmonies that occur between idiolects. What’s natural to one person can ring awkwardly in another’s ear, or even set teeth on edge.

    koj: Thanks for sharing. Another vote for snuck!

    Trevor: Shat is common enough, and is even listed in the OED along with shit and shitted as past tense and past participle forms. It’s not suitable for polite society, but I won’t make you wash your mouth out if you say it here.

  29. ALiCe__M says:

    Claudia, unlike you, I *begged* English people to correct me and they never did, probably because they found it impolite or “no fun” as you wrote. I think it’s a question of culture : In France, correcting people when they ask you to is viewed as a service, not an arrogant attitude.
    Stan, language is a beautiful toy in any country, you are so right!

  30. […] condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by […]

  31. […] me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that […]

  32. MM says:

    What do people think of ‘hand dived scallops’? (e.g. at Borough Market)

  33. Stan says:

    MM: I haven’t tasted them, but I’ve no objection to the usage (though I’d be inclined to add a hyphen).

  34. […] 10. what’s wrong with snuck? [Nothing.] […]

  35. Sharon Newbound says:

    WHY would you take a perfectly acceptable regular verb, and turn it into an irregular verb? As to what is wrong with the word snuck (and put dove in there also) – what is right with it? It is the old ‘nails on a blackboard for me’, and I’m afraid it has the effect of making the user sound as if they have never been to school! I appreciate that language evolves, however I currently feel as if I am listening to English DE-volve around me – wonder if Chaucer felt the same way?

    • Uly says:

      Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
      Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
      That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
      Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
      And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
      Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
      In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

      Given the quote, I’m thinking not so much.

  36. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sharon. It wasn’t a decision someone made; the irregular form just arose. Language doesn’t adhere tightly to logic and predictability, and for that I am grateful. I like both sneaked and snuck, and I enjoy having a choice of words that offer different sounds, connotations, and sensations. For a good book on how and why languages change, I recommend Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language.

  37. Peter Rutenberg says:

    Let’s also remember that modern English is quite an amalgam. In its more than 1500-year history, the Anglo-Saxon first spoken in the southeast of Britain has been inflected and altered by the indigenous Celtic language that predated the invasion, later by Danish during the Danelaw (8th-9th c.), and most distressingly by the Norman French from 1066 to about 1350. Strong verbs in English all carry tense and mood shifts by changing vowels; weak ones by adding -ed. Both of these usages occur in the proto-language. But I submit that the residual ‘character’ of the Anglo-Saxon people in modern usage is more akin to, and asserts itself more visibly, in the strong-verb paradigm. And that is why I believe that certain (one syllable) verbs tend to shift toward the strong even if they were originally weak, for whatever reason of origin and date of entry. Or we could just look at it like rule-heavy language-speakers do and consider English as naturally entropic.

  38. Mike Woods says:

    Snuck is referred to as an informal colloquialism or localism used in error. Another word that is the same is “alot” which is actually 2 words when written correctly. It seems that people in our society today love to butcher our language.

  39. Stan says:

    Mike: Snuck is not an error; it’s standard English. Alot is a different matter entirely, but I agree that it’s an error. Your comment about “butchering” makes no sense to me.

    • Sharon Newbound says:

      I agree with Mike – when I am President of the World, I will have the usage of ‘snuck’ banned (along with dove – another ‘nails on the blackboard’ for me!). Just because an ‘informal colloquialism or localism used in error’ is used ad nauseum, doesn’t mean it is correct. Language should evolve, not de-volve!

      • Uly says:

        Changing to add a new form that did not previously exist IS evolving. Ditching a form in favor of one that used to exist in the past but that is now obsolete would be devolving, where the de- prefix implies – or even requires! – returning to a previous state.

        If you’re going to decry language change, you can at least get the terminology right. Otherwise you just sound silly.

        • Sharon Newbound says:

          My comment re language “de-volving” was made with a large dose of tongue in cheek – sad that for some, a love of language means a distinct lack in the sense of humour department. My final word on the use of snuck is – it is not a ‘new form’ of a word – it has been used for some time, as an informal colloquialism, but I could (‘jokingly’) say it was only used by those who didn’t know any better! Just because more people are doing something incorrectly, doesn’t mean it is now correct.

      • Uly says:

        In language, more people doing something DOES make it correct. This isn’t math.

        As far as tongue in cheek goes, it is not that I lack a sense of humor, it is that you did not sound intentionally funny.

      • Stan says:

        Sharon: Like it or not, snuck is not an “informal colloquialism”. Though avoided in some formal contexts, it is now part of the standard language. If you need convincing on this point, please read the post again, or at least the quotations from Merriam-Webster, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage, the Random House Dictionary, Steven Pinker et al.

        Uly: “In language, more people doing something DOES make it correct.” Yes, when there are enough of them for long enough – as has happened with snuck. The problem is, a few people will ignore the evidence in order to maintain and justify their dislike of a usage.

  40. Margaret says:

    How do we tell whether it’s evolved or de-volved, you prescriptionists?

  41. Stan says:

    Sharon: It’s not a question of evolving or “de-volving”. It’s change. Arguing against it is like complaining about the tide ruining a small sandcastle you were fond of. By the way, ad nauseum is a misspelling; the phrase you want is ad nauseam.

    Margaret: Good question. The line of reasoning appears to be: “What I like is good; what I don’t like is bad.” After all, what are facts compared to feelings?

  42. richardsmyth says:

    “People… love to butcher our language.”

    Good butchery only ever improves the quality of the product. I want a language that can give me everything from black pudding to best pork.

    What you want your language to be, it seems, is a pig.

  43. Stan says:

    Richard: You’ve made a real meal of that metaphor! I agree in principle: innovation signifies a language’s health and vigour, regardless of how we feel about particular coinages and developments.

  44. Not that you need any more evidence, but the new edition of AHD updates its usage note for “snuck.” “Snuck” was acceptable to 75% of the Usage Panel in 2008. “Sneaked” was also acceptable by 90% of the Usage Panel in 2008.

  45. Stan says:

    Erin: Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It marks a big shift from 67% disapproval 20 years earlier, though it’s unlikely to persuade the die-hard snuck-haters.

  46. […] of irregular verb forms like “snuck,” “dreamt” and “awoke.” Stan Carey calls these forms unusual, and they are less common than innovative regular forms […]

  47. Richie Benaud, the doyen of Australian cricket commentators, clearly doesn’t believe that the British public are ready for “snuck” – at least, not the cricket lovers. The following is from the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Aug 2014:

    Former Test opener Michael Slater remembers making his calling debut in England alongside Benaud for Channel 4.
    He was nervous, and in the heat of the call described a situation as a “tragedy”.
    “Michael,” Richie said in a commercial break. “You used the word ‘tragedy’. The Titanic is a tragedy. Being bowled is not a tragedy.”

    On another occasion, Slater said the “ball snuck under the bat”.
    He asked Richie off-air if English viewers would understand the term “snuck”.
    Benaud looked at him, then said nothing for several overs, before finally pulling Slater aside and pointing out the importance of accuracy and knowing your audience.
    “Michael, I know of plenty of ‘uck’ words,” Benaud said. “But a ‘snnnn’ isn’t one of them.”

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for this, Gerry. Quite a few people, it seems, aren’t ready for snuck, though it’s no one’s business to decide this on behalf of entire populations! I side with Benaud on the casual use of tragedy; not on snuck, but I enjoyed his quip in the last line.

      • Developing the theme a little, I just now heard Stephen Fry, on his quiz show QI, say that Yul Brynner never “blunk” when he fired guns in his films. Jocosely, of course.

  48. David Morris says:

    A few weeks ago a 15-year-old female student asked me “What words end with -uck, apart from that one?”. I didn’t ask her to specify what ‘that one was, but asked why she wanted to know. She said a friend learning English at another college in Sydney sent her a photo of a worksheet of words ending with -uck, which she showed to me. One picture was clearly of a duck, and another was of a hen, so I explained that the characteristic sound of a hen was ‘cluck’.
    I suspect that Richie would not agree with Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

  49. Stan says:

    Gerry: I like that. Think→thunk is the usual humorous corruption along those lines, but there’s always room for more.

    David: I wonder if the intended word was chuck, a northern English word meaning chicken or hen. Cluck is possible, but it seems oblique unless the picture included some reference to the sound the hen was making.

    • David Morris says:

      I wasn’t aware of that meaning of ‘chuck’. It’s possible, but ‘cluck’ the sound is more common; at least it came up first in more dictionaries.
      Whether there are more nouns than any other part of speech, or for some other reason, vocab worksheets tend to have more nouns on them than anything else, except when the sheet is specifically titled eg ‘Activities of daily living’ (verbs, though many require a noun object), or ‘Emotions’ (adjectives, though there are corresponding nouns).

      • Stan says:

        The usual spelling is chook (I got distracted by -uck words earlier). It’s a common enough word in informal usage, native to Australia or New Zealand but I hear it in Ireland too. That the worksheet was being used in Sydney has convinced me the answer is chook.

      • David Morris says:

        This commenting system doesn’t allow me to reply to your reply (which I think will appear below). I know *chook*, but just didn’t connect ‘chuck’ and ‘chook’. Even though the worksheet was being used in Sydney, it could have been made anywhere.

      • A very powerful Premier of Queensland, Joe Bjelke-Peterson, used to refer to his throwaway interviews with the press as “feeding the chooks.”

      • The one comment I’d like to add to the “chook” subthread is that “chookbucket” (a bucket full of household food scraps to be fed to the poultry) is a fun word to say.

  50. David Morris says:

    (Sorry – even though the clickable word ‘reply’ appears under my reply, my second reply does actually appear in order, below Stan’s second.)

  51. anon (AmE) says:

    “Is ‘snuck’ acceptable?” isn’t a precise enough question. I’m an American English speaker and prefer
    “snuck in(to)” > “sneaked in(to)”
    BUT “sneaked up on” >> “snuck up on.”

    I’d be curious to see the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel’s split for each phrase.

  52. I still think there’s a sound symbolism thing going on (i.e. I support Geoff Nunberg’s “morphologically apt” theory. I have a strong intuitive sense that this is the case.

    If James Kilpatrick was imagining himself telling a ghost story, then I can see why he would prefer “sneaked” — it has more capacity for narrative intonation. But telling ghost stories is not particularly high on the list of things that language is used for, and in most contexts, sneaking isn’t supposed to sound scary. It’s not a particularly scary concept.

    Sneaking is what you do when you don’t want to disturb people. By its nature, it is an action that doesn’t draw attention to itself, and is experienced with all the abruptness of a cut scene in a movie — or teleportation. I am there, and the next thing you know, I am not.

    The abrupt, unassuming “snuck” fits that role much more aptly than the somewhat clumsy “sneaked”, especially in the past tense where the emphasis is rarely on the act of sneaking and more often on the fact that it was accomplished. The aforementioned ghost story is a rare exception.

    The word “nipped” — as in, “I nipped out” — shares some of the same sound-symbolic reasons for being best expressed in a short, staccato syllable. It is an act that seeks to trivialise itself.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s funny how varied and contradictory people’s intuitions about a word can be. Kilpatrick says that snuck has “none of the scary, stealthy, furtive ring of ‘sneaked'”, but I think ‘stealthy’ and ‘furtive’ are very much characteristics of snuck and part of why it has been so embraced.

  53. […] issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, […]

  54. […] Here’s a link to an interesting article on “Sentence First: An Irishman’s Blog About the English Language https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/snuck-sneaked-in/ […]

  55. […] And, very rarely, we muddle a perfectly ordinary verb like sneak, whose regular past is sneaked. We kept things interesting, though, by making it snuck. […]

  56. astraya says:

    Today I had occasion to say sneaked or snuck, and found myself quite naturally saying snuck. It was an informal conversation, though. I might make a different choice in prepared formal speech.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Snuck is my default, but I do use sneaked occasionally. I wonder about register, as there aren’t many formal contexts where I would be likely to use either word.

  57. ktschwarz says:

    Ha, I came here to remark on snuck in The Lost Books of the Odyssey, and there’s nbmandel nine years ahead of me. I think what surprised me was the context:

    Knowing we would never take the city, I decided to go straight for the war’s cause, so one night I put on beggar’s rags and snuck into Troy with a bag of gold and a skinning knife. I went to the palace and lingered on the steps, begging alms of passersby (many of whom I recognized from the field, none of whom gave me a second glance).

    I think of snuck as colloquial, so I wasn’t expecting to see snuck in one sentence and whom in the next.

    Anyway, The Lost Books of the Odyssey is terrific, highly recommended to anyone into Greek mythology. It’s like the Iliad and the Odyssey seen through a kaleidoscope, constantly re-shuffling and forming alternate universes. What if Achilles was invulnerable because he was actually a golem? What if Odysseus married Helen? What does the story look like from Scylla’s point of view, or the swineherd’s?

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