Saturday, February 14, 2009

family words: snitch

as a child, you grow up with certain words -- these words are like familiar objects, an old pair of scissors or shoes, or a frying pan. it is only as you grow out of your family you begin to realize that some of these familiar words are not familiar to other people. many words come from your parents. my dad said "blast!" my mom said "gad!" and "i haven't the foggiest idea!" other words come from siblings. in my case, it was my four older sisters, who spun out their own rich vocabulary, creating a small cultural cocoon which defined the four who had suffered the loss of their father. us younger kids absorbed these words from the periphery.

my sisters liked to use the word "snitch" -- not to mean "inform on," but to mean "pilfer food," usually some dessert or treat, before mom and dad had authorized it eaten. having nine siblings, it is understandable that this word would be so important! just to think of those days is to remember many pairs of sharp eyes, zestfully monitoring anyone who approached the prized cake or plate of cookies.(the other night, flipping through an old photo album, i saw two photos of myself holding a sandwich. it was curled within my protective grip. my middle school friends used to laugh at how i held my sandwich in the cafeteria, as if it was about to be snatched). but as i got older, i did not hear the word used in this way -- instead, its mainstream usage as "inform" seemed to come from prison and underworld cultures.

last week, sara was reading a mystery, "death in duplicate," when a sentence leapt out: so and so had been snitching cookies from the funeral home kitchen. huh? so had my sisters not made this meaning up? and a search online confirms that this meaning of "pilfer" is about 100 years old. i wonder if this meaning is regionally specific.

snitch (n.)

"informer," 1785, probably from underworld slang meaning "the nose" (1700), which apparently developed from an earlier meaning "fillip on the nose" (1676).

snitch (v.)

1803, "to inform," from snitch (n.). Meaning "to steal, pilfer" is attested from 1904, perhaps a variant of snatch (v.).

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