Hunting ‘snipe’ in the English lexicon

Though somewhat undistinguished as a bird, snipe has developed a surprisingly diverse set of meanings as an English word.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor
A snipe stands on a shallow sand bar in Broad Creek, Fla.

As a child I played my share of games at summer camp, but I never went on a snipe hunt. This is a kind of practical joke that was particularly popular among the Boy Scouts. A new Scout would be told stories about “the snipe,” a marvelous animal that lived in the woods and looked like a rabbit with antlers, or perhaps a squirrel with feathers. He would be led into the forest, instructed to call the animal by making various noises, and given a bag to capture it when it approached. In the meantime, his friends would return to camp, leaving the gullible newcomer alone in the woods, making silly noises, until comprehension dawned.

While the target of a summer camp snipe hunt is an imaginary animal, snipes are real – small, brown, wading birds. Though somewhat undistinguished as a bird, snipe has developed a surprisingly diverse set of meanings as an English word. 

A sniper shoots at long-range targets from a concealed position. Snipes are some of the most difficult game birds to hunt because they blend into their surroundings, are small in size, and have erratic flight patterns. Anyone who can flush a snipe and then hit it as it flies away must be a crack shot, hence sniper

An alternative etymology holds that the word derives from the snipe’s own method of hunting. It has excellent camouflage and a long bill, and so might, to the mollusks and amphibians it eats, seem to attack suddenly and from a long distance away.

Snipe was then extended metaphorically to describe sharp criticism, verbal attacks that seem to come in bursts from afar: “The politicians sniped at each
other endlessly.” 

Today it has become a common hockey term. A particularly skilled and difficult goal might be called a snipe, and a player who can consistently bring off such shots a sniper. It also describes bidding in an online or silent auction that occurs too late to allow others to respond. I once lost an item at a school auction to someone who had stealthily waited until the closing bell rang, then bid $5 more. Now I have a word for that: I was sniped.

Since the late 19th century, snipe has also referred to the discarded end of a cigar or cigarette, and snipe hunting is searching the ground for old butts to smoke. This usage seems to be related to guttersnipe, a street urchin. English has a habit of turning bird names into derogatory terms, as in goose, chicken, and turkey, and snipe is no exception.  

From temperate marshes and forests to hockey rinks, dirty city streets, and eBay, snipes are everywhere.

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