World Wide Words logo


If we ever come across this word now, it’s most probably in the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado: “As he squirmed and struggled, / And gurgled and guggled, / I drew my snickersnee!” A snickersnee was a large knife.

A couple of centuries earlier it was not a single word but a phrase, steake or snye, which was also written as stick or snee, snick or snee, snick-a-snee, or in other ways. All these versions go back to a couple of Dutch words, steken, to thrust or stick, and snijden, to cut. We have exactly the same phrase, though inverted, made from native English words: cut and thrust. The phrases referred to a type of hand-to-hand fighting with pointed knives, or — by the end of the eighteenth century — to the knife one did it with.

It was fairly common in Victorian Britain, and appeared several times in works by William Makepeace Thackeray, for example in his Burlesques: “Otto, indeed, had convulsively grasped his snickersnee, with intent to plunge it into the heart of Rowski; but his politer feelings overcame him. ‘The count need not fear, my lord,’ said he: ‘a lady is present.’ ” It seems certain that Lewis Carroll had it in mind when he wrote Jabberwocky: “One, two! One, two! And through and through / The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!”

Page created 2 Aug. 2003

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 2 August 2003.