Thread: Snickersnee
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Old 01-17-2017, 08:29 PM
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The term first appears in English as a phrase, snick or snee, in the early seventeenth century. It refers to fighting with knives, often in contexts which associate the practice of knife-fighting in general, or a particular style of knife-fighting, to Dutch or Flemish people. Etymologically, it comes from two Flemish/Dutch words meaning to thrust or stick, and to cut.

By the late seventeenth century, snick or snee had developed an alternate sense, denoting a choice between two alternatives, both unpleasant. It's used in contexts which have nothing to do with knife-fighting.

About the same time, the phrase evolves into snick-a-snee, a verb meaning to engage in a knife-fight or a noun meaning a knife suitable or intended for this purpose. By the early eighteenth century snick-a-snee has become snickersnee, and it retains both the noun sense and the verbal sense, though eventually the noun sense comes to predominate.

Finally, in the nineteenth century, a second noun sense emerges - a type of knife, but not necessarily one suited for close fighting; rather, an impressively long and ferocious one. This is the sense in which Gilbert & Sullivan use it.