A Snake by Any Other Name

Year of the SnakeHappy Chinese New Year everyone!

As you may know, this year is the Year of the Snake. What better way to celebrate than by exploring the etymology of the word snake? (Yeah, okay smarty-pants readers, I’m sure you can think of a few other ways to celebrate…)

Snakes are one of those creatures that people tend to love or hate. I’m in the first camp. They are so unique – it’s hard not to admire the versatility and tenacity of an animal that doesn’t have limbs. Plus they come in such pretty colours and patterns. What’s not to love?

But where does their name come from?

Well, the earliest record of the word snake comes from 1590 and at the time it was used to refer to a person who was treacherous.  The word itself has origins in a few different languages, making it difficult to pinpoint its exact inception. For example, in Old English we have the word snaca, which likely came from the Proto-Germanic snakon, which probably came from the Proto-Indo-European root snag- or sneg-, meaning “to crawl” or “creeping thing.”

However, you can also find similar history in the Old Norse word snakr or the Swedish word snok. The Old Irish word snaighhim and the Old High German word snahhan both meant “to creep.” And ironically, in Lithuanian the word snake refers to a snail.

So if snake originally referred to a not-so-likeable person, how did it come to refer to a limbless reptile?

Around the year 1300, what we call a snake was known as a serpent. After the introduction of the word snake in the late 16th century, it gradually replaced the word serpent in Modern English. Although it’s not documented, it’s pretty easy to imagine how the word snake came to refer to a serpent. I imagine the conversation went a little like this:

“Ye gods! Elinor, I’ve been bitten by a serpent. I cannot go on.” Edmund collapses in a dramatic heap on the ground.

“Oh no, my sweet Edmund,” Elinor cries, running to his side. She spies the serpent, slithering away in the grass. “You foul serpent! You are nothing but a wicked snake, creeping away from your crime!”

And on that note, I will wish you all the best for the Year of the Snake, especially those of you who happen to be Snakes. In my opinion, you are all beautiful serpents.

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Image credit: © Yan Yan / Freepik.com

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