Lifting the sneck

August 22, 2012

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: An 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]