Hungry for a snack?
Snack started its etymological life as a verb (“to snack”) which possibly (though doubtfully) originated from the Middle Dutch snacken (which sounds like I made it up, but I didn’t). The original sense of snack (and snacken) was “a snap, a bite, especially that of a dog” and we see it used this way in English writing between 1400 and 1900.
So, right off the bat we have in fact three terms that follow the same sort of trajectory – snack, snap, and bite – moving from dog mouths to people mouths, and to people mouths both in the sense of words (you can make “biting” remarks and be accussed of “snapping” at someone) and in the sense of food (snack, snap, and bite are all terms found for “food eaten in between meals” within the Linguistic Atlas data).
The idea behind the transition of snack “to bite” and snack “a bite” is that of being a “small quantity”, a “mere taste” of food or drink. A morsel, a tidbit, a “light or incidental repast” (no amount of joking could be better than what the OED actually says).
An example of early written snack (from the British publication The Monitor, 1757): “When once a man has got a snack of their trenchers, he too often retains a hankering after the honey-pot”. I’m pretty sure my mom gave me this same warning when I started dating…
Anyway, another, more old-fashioned, word for “a snack” is actually lunch. The earliest use of the word lunch was to denote the “sound made by the fall of a soft heavy body” (read: “the sound of too much snacking”); lunch in this sense might be onomatopoeic.
Lunch may have developed from lump (like hunch from hump and bunch from bump, perhaps in a box and perhaps with a fox).
Lunch takes on a more familiar meaning in the late 1500s, as “a piece, a thick piece; a hunch or hunk”. The word was used as an abbreviation of luncheon, was initially considered “vulgar” and, according to an 1829 quotation, lunch was “avoided as unsuitable to the polished society there exhibited”.
So, which came first, lunch or luncheon?
Dunno. Luncheon shows up first in writing (11 years before lunch). It could be that lunch hops over to the food-side of things due to the influence of Spanish lonja “slice of ham”. It could be that luncheon came from lunch (like truncheon from trunch and puncheon from punch, perhaps in a boat and perhaps with a goat).
Apparently we do a lot of stuff by analogy.
But back to snacks.
Other words for a snack? How about a piece, a piece meal, or a piecing?
How about a nuncheon? (Noon + our suffix friend from before, cheon).
Would you care for a nosh, a snatch, a knick knack, a tidbit? How about a morsel (and we get the following from 1655 A Voyage to India, “The Shark. . .will make a morsell of any thing he can catch, master, and devour”).
Maybe, if you did prepare a fancy snack (and you know who you are), then you should call it a refection (related to refectory, from the Latin verb “to refresh”), a mixtum, a bever (yes, it’s related), a collation (so is this), a crib (if you’re an Aussie or a Kiwi), a munchin, or a merenda (if your snack is Italian).
Or a bait. Which went from “attractive morsel of food placed on a hook or in a trap to allure fish or other animals to seize it and be thereby captured” to use as “food generally” or “refreshment” between 1470 and 1650 or so.
The last tidbit of snacky information I’d like to leave you with is another morsel of Linguistic Atlas data. How about a jackbite?
Jackbite is a term used in West Virginia along the Kanawha River, a term that harkens back to the early European settlers of the area, who were mostly from Scotland, Ireland and northern England. These settlers would have brought with them the term chack, which, much like the terms snack, snap, and bite, comes from a verb meaning “to squeeze or crush with teeth”. So, people heard “chack” and interpreted it as jack and then, knowing it meant “a bite to eat”, added bite to get jackbite (this general process, of hearing and re-interpreting, is called folk etymology).
Chack also gave rise to the use of check for snack, a term you might (still) hear in other eastern areas settled by these same people, such as the Blue Ridge mountains.
And so we have as much variation in our names for snacks as we do in the snacks themselves.
As a reward for finishing this blog entry, I think I’ll have a . . . I’ll have a . . . um. . . I’ll just have tea.