This ancient word has a fine pedigree — Shakespeare used it a couple of times — with many relatives and variant forms in the older English dialects.
However, it went out of the mainstream language in the nineteenth century, to the extent that an article in the Spectator in June 1888 held it up as a specimen of the wonderful English of foreigners who compiled English dictionaries. (The writer might have had in mind that extraordinary New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English by Pedro Carolino that had appeared five years before, whose preface asserted that its “translation what only will be for to accustom the Portuguese pupils, or foreign, to speak very bad any of the mentioned idioms”, an ambition triumphantly achieved.) The renowned philologist of the period, Walter Skeat, criticised the Spectator article for its insufficiencies.
He might have said that he sneaped it, since the word’s principal meaning during its lifetime was to reprove or chide. It’s linked to Old Norse sneypa, to outrage, dishonour or disgrace. In Henry IV, Part 2, Sir John Falstaff responds to criticism from the Lord Chief Justice that he had been imposing on the innkeeper Mistress Quickly: “My lord, I will not undergo this sneap without reply.”
But when it was first recorded in English it meant to pinch or nip. The link is with another Scandinavian relative, the Swedish snöpa, to castrate. Rebukes were presumably seen as the unkindest cut, an unmanning of one’s power or reputation. Might sneap be linked to snip, or even snipe? It would be good to uncover a connection, but the experts say there isn’t one.
Despite the Spectator, the word was far from dead. In the sense of biting criticism it was still to be found two decades later:
“Now, Master Charles,” Hilda could remember her saying, “will you ask me for the next polka all over again, and try not to look as if you were doing me a favour and were rather ashamed of yourself?” She had a tongue for the sneaping of too casual boys, and girls also.
Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett, 1911.
And, as Walter Skeat pointed out, it was in active use in English dialects ranging from Staffordshire to Cumberland, with meanings such as blight or wither, deprive, pinch or starve, or disappoint. Half a century after the Spectator article, a book of north-country childhood memories recalls some of these dialect uses:
Anyone who had been snubbed or repressed into silence before other people was said to have been “sneaped”. A haughty woman would sneap another, an overbearing man would sneap his wife, the wintry-wind sneaped us to silence.
The Country Child, by Alison Uttley, 1931.
Readers tell me that it is still in active use to mean criticism or reproof in parts of England, including Derbyshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands. It appears rarely in printed sources, but in 1998 a reviewer in the Birmingham Post of a fresh recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons used it in another of its senses: “Summer storms bring some exhilaratingly fierce bowing in a consistently dramatic account, and Winter opens with almost physically sneaping sounds”, calling it “a good old Shakespearean Midlands word”.