The Daily

Letter from Our Southern Editor

Open Letter to The Awl

June 18, 2010 | by

Brothers and sisters, with all respect, your declaration of war is an admission of defeat. We beg you to reconsider this folly.

First you tell us—in what begins to sound like a rage-filled howl against the light—that there is “no such word as snuck.” Then you send us a link to an Internet site, where we learn that snuck “has reached the point where it is a virtual rival of sneaked in many parts of the English-speaking world.” With enemies like that, who needs friends?

You instruct us to look at the OED, yet when we do, we find not only a snuck entry there (“chiefly U.S. pa. tense and pple. of sneak v.”), but also dozens of usage citations, going back to the nineteenth century, many of which are taken from such known language slouches as Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner . . .

Speaking of Faulkner, the coincidence of our being crackers is not, as you imply, irrelevant in this case. The very first appearances of snuck are almost exclusively Southern, and opposition to it has always been inseparable from the idea that it sounds country, or vulgar, or demotic.

That's probably why the dear “ass-people” at your high school taught you never to say snuck. They wanted the best for you, and didn't want your college professors making fun of you in class. That's only proper. High school is the time and place for rigid prescriptivism of the kind you're trying to put over on us. Later on, though, you put away high-school things. You wake up to the idea that English is an ocean, full of words that live, change, and die, and that your task is not to fix them in place but to master their flow, as best a person can.

A story I heard during the course of my own education changed my mind forever on this subject. When William Tyndale was doing his translation of the New Testament in the sixteenth century—the one that got him killed—there was a certain ancient word for which he lacked an English equivalent. His solution was to mash together a French word, beauty, and an old Saxon one, full. That's how we got beautiful. By your logic, we should stop using it, since, after all, it wasn't a word. Nothing is, until it is.

Snuck is a beautiful, almost onomatopoeic word. We've asked you for a good reason not to use it. In return you've given us the opinions of a long-ago ass-person (enjoyable term in itself—your coinage?). That person has been oppressing you. Set yourself free.

Yours in the cause,
JJS

13 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Rebecca | June 18, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    That is brilliant! I love the english language as an ocean full of things that live, change and die. Can’t wait for their response. x

  2. Bud Parr | June 18, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Unfortunately or not, snuck is a word, barely worth thinking about, and ass-people is hardly a novel coinage.

  3. Kevin | June 18, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    I think I’m in love with you, John Jeremiah Sullivan

  4. Steven Augustine | June 19, 2010 at 7:00 am

    Ha ha! I can’t believe you took the rubber-worm bait! I have now heard of “The Awl”. (Haven’t clicked-over yet, though)

  5. Steven Augustine | June 19, 2010 at 7:04 am

    Okay, I’ve done the click-over. Dreadfully Nick-Denton-esque site.

  6. Louisa Thomas | June 19, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    I am so glad that JJS mentions Tyndale. I didn’t know that he had coined “beautiful,” but I think about his inventions often: scapegoat, atonement (“at-one-ment,” the state of being one), brother’s keeper. JJS is entirely right to suggest that Tyndale understood that language is an instrument–a voice. Something we use to make sense. And that’s what should motivate any debate about prescriptive and descriptive usage, right? We follow or break rules for a reason, because it makes sense. At any rate, I agree with JJS. “Snuck” is a beautiful word. You can’t say “sneaked” without sneering.

  7. Steven Crandell | June 20, 2010 at 2:01 am

    Brilliant defense of snuck.

    Which is a sneaky word after all and should be given just as rigorous a defense as a more charming word like “kanoodling” which was no doubt just as taboo in its days of pre-acceptance.

    Language has to do with tongues, naturally. And tongues will wag — often in counterpoint to rules of proper usuage. No one dares to prescribe how to kiss. You are either a good kisser or not. Often, writers can be characterized similarly.

    Besides, even though it might feel like you’re slumming it, be honest, isn’t it easier to say “snuck up” than “sneaked up.”

    I eagerly await the debate on snuckered vs. sneakered.

  8. Drew | June 20, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    This is brutal. Continue, by all means.

    Also, you shouldn’t be reluctant to hang your hats on this–I’m picturing a new Paris Review T-shirt:

    On the front: “Snuck”
    On the back: “The Paris Review” with that fine bird logo of yours.

    Put me down for two, XL.

  9. Jason | June 21, 2010 at 9:26 am

    “English is an ocean, full of words that live, change, and die, and that your task is not to fix them in place but to master their flow, as best a person can.”

    I just printed out that quote, hung it up in my cubicle, and passed out copies to all my co-editors.

  10. Choire | June 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

    “Dreadfully Nick-Denton-esque site.”

    Darling Steven Augustine: There is little, if anything, “Nick-Denton-esque” about our website. (I know him well, and so I’m qualified to say that.) Never does our site have an English accent, a large head and an endless capacity for Balthazar breakfasts. Perhaps whatever portion of the four minutes you spent reading The Awl between your two comments here was not long enough to pass judgment?

    (Also, your ability to enjoy quixotic and ironic crusades, solely intended to drive traffic to the Paris Review’s blog? Well I deem it lacking.)

    Best regards etc.

  11. Steven Augustine | June 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Choire!

    I salute the fact that you’re secure enough in your masculinity to “darling” me… the last time I tried that in an online scuffle, the target called me a “F-GG-T” in response and tried to give me an awful scare by typing really, really hard on his keyboard. Also: I apologize for referring to The Awl, witheringly, as “Nick-Denton-esque”. It’s clear that I misspoke; what I meant to write was “Nick-Denton-knowing”.

    Again: one thousand mea culpas,

    SA

  12. Georgia Cool | June 21, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Coincidentally, over on Language Log, an academic linguistics blog, they’ve settled what they call the “Snuck Saga” with this conclusion: “sneaked is toast.” Their post from today:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2401

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  1. […] got all “pedantic as hell” in a scathing letter to the editor. After another round or two of posts, literary license prevailed and the Daily won the Snuck […]

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