A Word Whose History Is a Mystery


I’ve never been very interested in etymology. I know that makes me a bad little language columnist.

But the truth is, word histories all start to sound the same after a while. Such-and-such word came from this-other word in this-other language, which evolved from this-other word and its meaning changed subtly from this to that to some other thing over time. Same story, different details.

But while word origins don’t interest me much, a word with no known origin — now that’s interesting.

Lexicographers and linguists trace the histories of words by looking at written works going back decades, centuries or all the way back to the days of Chaucer.

Doing so, they can determine when, where and how words have been used, as well as who was using them and how they’ve changed over time. So when you look up a word in a well-researched guide like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, you’re never surprised to find lots of historical context for whichever word you’re looking up.

But it’s quite surprising to see something like this: “‘Sneak’ is a word of mysterious origin.”

Then the mystery deepens: “It first turns up in Shakespeare.”

Here's what I learned, including some interesting facts about "snuck."

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