'Psycho' in No. 10?

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Some sub-editor at the  Telegraph has recently held a sort of master class in prepositional phrase attachment. It starts with the headline: "Gordon Brown is frustrated by 'Psycho' in No 10". The sub-head then leads the reader down a parenthetical garden path with  virtuosic bravado (though purists may object to the use of missing punctuation):

While not exactly a film buff, Gordon Brown was touched when Barack Obama gave him a set of 25 classic American movies – including Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins on his recent visit to Washington.

In case some higher power intervenes to spoil this specimen, here's a screen shot:

(Click for a larger version.)

Being insensitive to the finer points of British political and journalistic culture, I can't tell whether this is a sign of (a) cost-cutting, (b) educational failure, Youth Today, and the Decline of Civilization, (c) subtle editorial irony, or (d) all of the above.

The body of the story, by Tim Walker, appears to be linguistically unremarkable, at least with respect to the parsing of post-head modifiers. But American readers may be surprised at the assertion, in the reporter's voice, that a White House spokesman "sniggered":

A White House spokesman sniggered when I put the story to him and he was still looking into the matter when my deadline came last night.

Sniggering seems to be a routine feature of attributive tags at the Telegraph. Here's one from another recent story:

Yet, possibly as a result of the democratic message of his work, Gormley suffers a fraught relationship with the art establishment, who often look down on his output. Does he believe that he is the victim of critical snobbery? "I'm very – what is the right word? – suspect," he says, with a bitter snigger.

However, I haven't found any other examples where sniggering isn't just a manner modifier in an attribution, but consitutes the entire quoted content of an official response.


  1. Karen said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    From my observation, "snigger" means "laugh" to Brits, though not to Americans of course. At least, that's the conclusion I've formed.

    [(myl) Well, it's a variant of snicker, and both are said to mean something like "to laugh in a covert or partly suppressed manner" (Merriam-Webster) or "To laugh in a half-suppressed, light or covert manner" (OED). I agree with the impression that snigger is more common in British use, though I don't have any evidence to offer. But for me, at least, the snigger version also has a nasty edge to it that snicker lacks, perhaps due to phonetic symbolism, or perhaps because of associations with the perceived role of suppressed laughter in British culture. I don't know whether this connotation is more widespread among Americans.]

  2. dw said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    "Snigger", to me, is what Muttley does in the Wacky Races cartoons. I think it has pretty much the same meaning in the US and UK (having lived many years in both countries): its more frequent usage in the UK media is merely reflective of the greater degree of cynicism in the press corps there.

  3. Cecily said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    I think the Miriam Webster definition quoted above holds true for the common usage of "snigger" in BrE.

    I have never heard anyone in Britain use "snicker" (other than in the plural, as the name of a chocolate bar), although we do come across it occasionally in US books, films, TV etc.

  4. Cecily said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    I was intrigued by "purists may object to the use of missing punctuation" in ML's post. How can you "use" something that is absent"?

    [(myl) One classical example is to remove a chair just before someone sits down on it.]

  5. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    I'm not sure I get the point of this. Yes, there should be a dash after "Perkins." Is that all?

    [(myl) Parsers have to struggle with prepositional phrase attachment, and so computational linguists are amused when human readers run into the same sort of difficulties. For the rest of you, the LL subscription department stands ready, as always, to refund double your subscription price in case of less than complete satisfaction. ]

    The hed is a typically idiotic British-newspaper joke at Gordon Brown's expense. The point is that Obama gave Brown DVD's that didn't work in the UK, DVD's being region-specific to give the studios control over price in different markets. So Brown was frustrated by "Psycho." Ha, ha. And the use of "snigger" is intended to imply in the utter absence of evidence that the gift of non-working DVD's was intentional, in line with the current theme being flogged that Obama dissed Brown. Brown's lack of standing in the US is an important story-line for the Conservatives, so the Telegraph (the Tory house organ) is not about to let it die. This sort of piling-on is an ordinary although repulsive aspect of British journalism.

    [(myl) I believe that everyone understands the story, but thank you for explaining it in any case.]

    And I would think that Americans shy away from "snigger" because it sounds like – well, you know.

    [(myl) Americans don't entirely fail to use this word, they just use it much less than snicker — 8 times for snigger in the past 12 months in the NYT, vs. 2640 for snicker. But I don't believe that this has changed much over time, or that PC sensibilities have anything to do with it — snigger was only used 5 times in the NYT between 1851 and 1871, whereas nigger was used 12 times in the year 1852 alone. ]

  6. Steve said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    'Snigger' is indeed the standard form here in Blighty. It often has an air of quiet, knowing mockery, rendered more effective by its supposed suppression. Not a positive word: that would be 'chuckle'.

    [(myl) For me, someone who snickers is silly, while someone who sniggers is malicious. But I haven't been able to find any support in dictionaries for that difference in connotation.]

  7. David J said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    The version of 'Psycho' must be a remake–and a very creepy one at that–if it stars Anthony Perkins on a recent trip to Washington. He's been dead for some years now.

  8. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    David J, you're way late. This is now a thread about who's the bigger idiot, me or myl. (note the snicker-snicker in myl's last comment – point to me.)

    To my ears, snicker and snigger are equally nasty.

    Which is odd, because a horse's snicker (or nicker) is a pleasant sound, and Snicker is a very common name for a pony.

  9. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    Oops, myl beat me to it – he corrected the error. point to myl.

  10. James said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    'Snicker' is for me slightly malicious, too, not merely silly (I'm American), something The Joker might do. Come to think of it, I wonder whether the whiff of ominousness comes from

    "And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker"

  11. Faldone said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    myl: For me, someone who snickers is silly, while someone who snickers is malicious.

    Did you get Cupertinoed, Mark?

    [(myl 12:37) No, I just got in a rush. I think I'll concede that Bloix has won the "who's a bigger idiot" competition, and try to finish up the other eleven chores I've got queued up between now and my next appointment at 3:00.]

  12. Faldone said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Boy, howdy. You can't doze off for a second around here.

  13. Robert Coren said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    I always had a kind of vague idea of what a "snigger" really is, but it was clarified for me by the British sitcom "The Good Life" (broadcast in the US as "Good Neighbors"): it's the sound that Jerry Ledbetter (the late Paul Eddington) makes in his rare moments of triumph.

  14. Adrian said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    I didn't have any problem understanding the "not exactly a film buff" sentence.

    And I'd say "classic example" rather than "classical example". (See after Cecily's comment above.)

    [(myl 12:32) I considered both (quickly, because I've had two meetings and a lecture since 9:00 a.m., and was commenting in literally seconds taken between periods of actual work), and decided that I meant "Of the first rank or authority; constituting a standard or model" rather than "Of the first class, of the highest rank or importance; approved as a model" — those being the OED's first senses for classical and classic respectively. But of course you're free to disagree.]

  15. John Lawler said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    But would you eat a candy labelled Sniggers?
    That's about as appetizing as Crunchy Frog.

    I share Mark's (American) intuitions, and indeed I'm not sure I've ever heard snigger in the US, though of course I've read it. And interpreted it the way he does.

  16. Mark F. said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    I thought Bloix's exegesis was helpful, actually. It hadn't occurred to me that the Telegraph would of course be more interested in what the incident said about Gordon Brown than what it said about Obama.

  17. Karl Weber said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    If "Muttley in the Wacky Races cartoons" (whoever he is) is the classic British exemplar of "sniggering," may I propose Beavis and Butthead as the American counterparts?

  18. Karl Weber said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Please disregard my last comment! It turns out that Wacky Races was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon of the 1960s and therefore very much an American, not British, artifact.

    The moral: Google before you comment, not afterward.

  19. Cecily said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Wacky Races was a US programme (Hanna Barbera)! Muttley was Dick Dastardly's dog.

    Here's a link of Muttley snixxering: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZm47SrmuwM, though it sounds squeakier than I remember it from my childhood.

  20. language hat said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    I thought Bloix's exegesis was helpful, actually

    Me too; my grasp of UK media/politico relations is shaky to nonexistent.

  21. dr pepper said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    Mutley had two useful comment sounds, his dry raspy snicker (keh keh keh), and his frustrated closed mouth mutter (rushenfrushenfeushen).

  22. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    "If we took the bones out, it wouldn't be crunchy, would it?"

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    The SOED gives 'sniggered' as a later variant of 'snicker' with the meaning of uttering a concealed laugh. The 'gg' variant seems to have won over the 'ck' variant. In American English 'snickered' is around nine times as common as 'sniggered', but has a wider meaning including a horse's whinny.

    The BCN and COCA have a number of attested examples where 'snigger' is not followed by any quoted words.

  24. Linda said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    The OED has snicker beating snigger by only ten years. Both are defined as "To laugh in a half-suppressed, light or covert manner" and then followed in the one case by "To snigger" and in the other by "To snicker"

  25. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    PS- myl, I do take your point about the subscription price. I'm genuinely grateful for language log and I'm sorry if I appear to be complaining about the quality of the free ice cream.

  26. Andrew said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    John Lawler: for a long time, it was felt that we in the UK would not eat a candy bar called Snickers either; it was known here as Marathon. It was changed, I think some time in the eighties, 'in the interests of international understanding'.

  27. James said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    In the U.S., a Marathon was different from Snickers. Marathon was braided, and had no peanuts. I don't think they're sold anymore.

  28. Rubrick said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    "Snicker" has the advantage of being less likely to be snagged by decency filters.

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 6:02 pm


    "And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker"

    Aha! – American poet; though one who expended a great deal of effort in being more English than the English.

    Now that my attention has been drawn to it, I think that in this context a Brit probably would have made the footman snigger, but the difference is not one that ever spontaneously occurred to me.

  30. Matt said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

    As an Australian, I have always used and heard the term 'snigger' exclusively. I had no idea 'snicker' was even a variant, let alone the more common one.

  31. Elizabeth said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    NZ perspective: Snigger = Muttley. Snickers is a candy bar normally.

    Just a comment – in New Zealand all DVD players have to play all regions – why did the UK consumer rights groups let this sort of thing occur? Perhaps this incident is a lovely example of what happens when two nations are controlled primarily by corporations? (We're only forced to eat dairy and meat. Enjoy the lamb!)

  32. Stuart said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    "Just a comment – in New Zealand all DVD players have to play all regions – "

    The first DVD player I bought here in NZ was Region 4 only, but that was 10 years ago, so I'm guessing that if there is some legal compulsion on retailers to sell only multizone players, it has been imposed relatively recently.

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    March 22, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    In the Middle East almost all DVD players are multi-region though if you are foolish enough to buy a PVR through a mainstream outlet you might have the bad luck to find it's region specific.

    As no one here ever plays non-pirated DVDs the point is somewhat academic anyway.

  34. Janice Huth Byer said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 5:24 am

    As to whether "snicker" is preferred in the States, because of the embedded perjorative in "snigger", MYL rightly settles it with facts.

    It's illuminating to contrast "snigger" with "niggardly", a word which actually has fallen into disuse and apparent disrepute in America, reportedly owing to an evidently valid concern it'll be taken wrong, to judge by the number of Google links attesting to a belief in its racist origins.

    The good word "niggardly" has, of course, been in common use in England, long before the n- word was cruelly fashioned of common phonetic elements of "Negro" and "chigger", the latter colloquial for harvest mite or chigoe fleas.

    Bottom line is "niggardly" is a perjorative modifier. That alone grants logic to a mistaken sense it's rooted in the perjorative n-word, a logic that can't indict the non-insult, "snigger".

    The notion of "a bitter snigger", as quoted in Mark's essay above, I find too delightful not to keep in mind for future use.

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