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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Hunting ‘snipe’ in the English lexicon
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today