snipe

Capsule notes:

Visual: a quick shot of a word, but a full array of lines and curves and loops; one ascender and one descender.

In the mouth: the tongue starts pressed against the alveolar ridge but still letting air through; then that closes to a nasal; then the tongue draws back for a curl and flex in the /aɪ/; and at last the mouth snaps shut with the bilabial stop. One quick syllable, with a gesture like that of an anglerfish grabbing its prey.

Semantics: a bird, often found in the bush, but at least as often not found because not seen; sharpshooting from a place of concealment, noun and verb, with extended senses in various areas of endeavour; also a deprecatory term for a base person. Snipe hunt refers to a fool’s errand, a wild goose chase.

Etymology: a Germanic word. All the snipe words come from the word for the bird. The sharpshooting senses relate originally to hunting the bird.

Collocations: snipe at, snipe hunt, guttersnipe, common snipe.

Overtones: there’s that nasal /sn/, which often shows up in words relating to the nose; there are echoes of snide, spite, snip, snap, smite, Snopes, knife, and perhaps stipend and Smythe and similar words.

Full tasting:

There are people who don’t believe snipes exist. They think they’re in a class with the urban legends debunked on Snopes.com. I’ve met at least one such person. Where does this idea come from? Well, in North America, a childish prank (sometimes also played by adults) among campers and others in or near wilderness areas is to send someone on a snipe hunt, beating the bushes or doing other strange things looking for this bird; the joke is that you won’t find it. The reason you won’t find it is first of all because there probably aren’t any in the area (they’re not all that common in North America), secondly because if you did find one you probably wouldn’t know what you were looking for anyway, thirdly because going through the bush shouting “Snipe! Snipe!” is a great way to scare birds and beasts away, fourthly because real snipes are really hard to catch or even to shoot, and fifthly because you could be looking directly at one and not see it.

You doubt? Have a look at the article “Can you spot the ‘invisible animal’? Incredible images show nature’s disappearing act when predators are near” on the Daily Mail website. A little below the halfway point of the set of photos by Art Wolfe, there is one of a snipe in some brush near a stream. You may look at the other photos and spot the hidden animal or bird after a second or two without reading the caption. But if and when you finally spot the snipe, you will likely find that you had looked directly at it several times without recognizing it as anything other than more of the riparian vegetation.

Lurking in vegetation is hardly enough to merit opprobrium, however; many creatures do so without becoming bywords for nasty people – see Othello, for instance: “For I mine owne gain’d knowledge should prophane, If I would time expend with such a snipe” – or lowly, vulgar types (in the compound guttersnipe). Nor is the term of abuse the direct source for the sharpshooter, or vice versa; the words snipe (verb) and sniper come from references to hunting for snipes, which apparently requires extra stealth and good shooting abilities (aside from hiding, they also fly away). That game hunting activity transferred to similar shooting in wartime, and from that the other metaphorical senses readily proceed.

But of course shooting from concealment is not universally positively viewed, especially in metaphorical senses. If you have been eagerly watching an item on ebay, hoping your bid will win it, you will probably be quite unhappy, and think very dark things about the person, if someone snipes it – overbids you with just a second or two left, so you don’t have time to bid back. In more general social circumstances, sniping is, as it were, knifing someone in the back, taking pot shots at them (somehow that metaphor for sloppy random shooting is in such cases used nearly interchangeably with one for very precise and skilled shooting).

I have an unsubstantiated suspicion that the echoes of knife, snide, spite, and such like feed into the tone and sense – the sounds lurking in the background, peeking out half-heard, shooting their sense into the word… a word that, for its part, though brief, actually rather stands out in a sentence, thanks to its sharp sound and sense.

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