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Peter Morris 01-17-2017 06:24 PM

I have often heard Gilbert and Sullivan's song The Criminal Cried and wondered exactly what kind of sword is a snickersnee.

The internet does not help. It just shows dozens of dictionaries that tell me that it's a type of sword or knife, and no more than that. World Wide Words gives me some information about the origin, but no more. There isn't even a Wikipedia page.

So, what exactly is a snickersnee? Length? Shape? Was it curved or straight? Single or double edged? Pointed? What location and period were they used? Were they known at all in pre-Shogunate Japan?

Or is it a generic term that can apply to any bladed weapon?

Kimstu 01-17-2017 06:37 PM


Originally Posted by Peter Morris (Post 19928245)
Or is it a generic term that can apply to any bladed weapon?

I think that's closer to the truth. Compare this reference from John Arbuthnot's early 18th-century History of John Bull that uses the word as a verb:

When he saw that John was still inexorable, he pulled out a case-knife, with which he used to snicker-snee, and threatened to cut his own throat.
A large sword-like knife that could be used either to thrust ("steake", "snick") or cut ("snye", "snee") seems to be as specific as the term gets in noun form.

UDS 01-17-2017 07:29 PM

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.

silenus 01-17-2017 08:39 PM

Sort of like this, apparently.

sciurophobic 01-18-2017 11:16 AM

Did Lewis Carroll derive the snicker-snack of a vorpal blade from this in any way?

bob++ 01-18-2017 11:29 AM

Looks like it:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Peter Morris 01-18-2017 11:44 AM

World Wide Words thinks so. See link above.

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