I’ve always found this a funny sort of little word. Its /sn/ onset sets it squarely in the midst of a number of words having to do with noses and nasal-toned things (snoot, snout, snore, snort, snot, snook, sniff, snuff, snivel, snoop, sneer, snarl) along with some unrelated to noses but that may seem to have some affinity of tone nonetheless (snag, snail, snap, snare, snatch, snazzy, sneak, snipe, snitch, snob, snub, snug) and some that may (or may not, depending on the hearer) seem unrelated (snake, snow). It has a bluntness in its /d/ ending, and it stares up at you wide-eyed from the page with its oo.
But what does it mean? And how is it pronounced? Well, the second question is not too hard – how it is, or anyway according to dictionaries should be, pronounced is not to rhyme with hood but rather to rhyme with mooed – making it sound like snowed said with a certain kind of Scottish accent.
The first question, on the other hand, is more of a trick than you might think, because it’s a moving target. We can say for certain that it’s always a doodad or odd and sod that is worn on or near the head. But greater specifics require context.
I knew it first as a hairnet – that bag-like sort of net that women may wear at the back of the head to contain long hair. They had some popularity during World War II; now they are mainly seen on strictly Torah-observant married Jewish women, Hutterites, and women from some other religiously conservative groups.
This is what I thought James Joyce was referring to in his poem “Bid Adieu to Maidenhood,” published in 1907:
Bid adieu, adieu, adieu,
Bid adieu to girlish days,
Happy Love is come to woo
Thee and woo thy girlish ways —
The zone that doth become thee fair,
The snood upon thy yellow hair.
When thou hast heard his name upon
The bugles of the cherubim
Begin thou softly to unzone
Thy girlish bosom unto him
And softly to undo the snood
That is the sign of maidenhood.
I thought it rather odd that he was obsessing on a hairnet and I wasn’t sure why he thought it to be so particularly a sign of maidenhood. (I also found his rhyme of snood and maidenhood every bit as off as his rhyme of adieu with woo and of upon with unzone – clearly dialectal differences.) But in fact he had a different sort of thing in mind, it turns out; we learn what from Walter Scott, in a note in his 1810 Lady of the Lake:
The snood, or riband, with which a Scottish lass braided her hair, had an emblematical signification, and applied to her maiden character. It was exchanged for the curch, toy, or coif, when she passed, by marriage, into the matron state. But if the damsel was so unfortunate as to lose pretensions to the name of maiden, without gaining a right to that of matron, she was neither permitted to use the snood, nor advanced to the graver dignity of the curch. In old Scottish songs there occur many sly allusions to such misfortune; as in the old words to the popular tune of “Ower the muir amang the heather”:
Down amang the broom, the broom,
Down amang the broom, my dearie,
The lassie lost her silken snood,
That gard her greet till she was wearie.
It was, in other words, a ribbon, which might have been braided into the hair.
But along with Scottish maidens and ultra-orthodox wives, there is a third set of people lately seen wearing snoods: soccer players.
No, they’re not wearing hairnets or hair ribbons. Somehow snood has come to refer to yet another thing: a neck warmer. They’re an in thing with some players, and FIFA is considering banning them – for safety reasons, they say, but I wonder if it’s just because they’re still frustrated about not being able to ban the vuvuzela during the World Cup and they want to ban something (no snoods is good snoods?). You can see this kind of snood pictured with articles such as the following, which American Dialect Society member Victor Steinbok drew my (and other ADS-L listers’) attention to: FIFA considering snood ban; Suspended pair fail with appeal bid and FIFA thinks snoods could be a danger to players’ necks.
We also see (and thanks to ADS-L member Damien Hall for this link) that it may have used to refer to a sort of cowl to go with an ’80s-style jacket: 80s New Romantic Gold Larme Jacket and Snood (note the reconstrual of lamé as larme).
So, I guess, if your hair’s nude or your neck’s nude, you can wear a snood; whether you should, and whether you will seem a snob or a prude, is another matter.