The snoot and the Geechee

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Nina Totenberg, "Skip the Legalese And Keep It Short, Justices Say", Morning Edition, 6/12/2011:

Most of the U.S. Supreme Court's work is in writing. The words on the page become the law of the land, but the justices have no uniform approach to the way they do that job. Indeed, each seems to have his or her own inspiration or pet peeve.

Much of this is laid out is a series of interviews conducted with the justices in 2007 and consigned to obscurity on a little-known website. Now those interviews have been published in the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, and they show some of the justices in an unusually revealing light.

I haven't had a chance to read the original interviews, but Ms. Totenberg highlights some linguistically interesting stuff:

Many of the justices admit to linguistic pet peeves. Kennedy hates adverbs and disdains nouns that are converted to verbs — "incentivize," for example. Scalia readily admits to being a snoot.

"Snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used, not dulling it by misuse," said Scalia, adding, "I'm a snoot."

As far as I know, snoot (in the sense of "really extreme usage fanatic") is a word that was coined within David Foster Wallace's family, and given to the world in his article "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage", Harper's Magazine, April 2001. He explained (of course) in a footnote:

3. SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer's nuclear family's nickname a clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in Safire's column's prose itself. This reviewer's family is roughly 70 percent SNOOT, which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance" or "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time" depended on whether or not you were one.

As I observed a few years ago about DFW's linguistic attitudes ("Snoot? Bluck", 11/8/2004),

I've noticed over the years that snoots often like to make up words, and I've wondered why people who value traditional usage so highly are also so open to lexical innovation. The paradox evaporated when I realized that the snootish impulse is not a defense of the community's traditions, it's an assertion of linguistic ego. And what could be more egocentric than inventing new words?

This also explain why snoots are never scholars. At least, their snootish outpourings are never based on scholarly investigation and analysis, even if they have some scholarly credentials in other aspects of their intellectual life. The reason is simple: scholarship subordinates the self, at least temporarily, to an investigation of external fact, while the snootish posture immediately asserts the primacy of the self's linguistic judgments. Snoots routinely invoke both the authority of tradition and the dictates of logic, but these are ex post facto rhetorical justifications, not the conclusions of a dispassionate analysis.

These comments dealt with the DFW nonce-word "bluck". The word snoot itself is an independently-attested  back-formation from snooty, glossed by the OED as "One who is snooty; a snob", with these citations:

1941 S. J. Baker Pop. Dict. Austral. Slang 68   Snoot, a disagreeable person.
1942 L. V. Berrey & M. Van den Bark Amer. Thes. Slang §402/3   Snob,‥snoot.
1971 D. O'Connor Eye of Eagle iv. 26   He was no snoot, yet he had kept me at a distance.
1977 S. L. Elliott Water under Bridge 15   Those Melbourne snoots‥look down their noses at us Sydneyites.
1984 Washington Post 4 Apr. b4/1   The emphasis is on fashion and manners; the sensibility part British snoot, part Gothamite chicquer-than-thou.
1989 Sunday Times 14 May g5/1   Val‥, tumbling hair and champagne glass in hand, mingles with these snoots at publishers' parties.

The Wallace family's innovation — if it was theirs alone — was to adapt this back-formation to refer to those whose nose-in-the-air attitude is specifically associated with usage peeves. Presumably, Justice Scalia adopted this word from DFW's 2001 review. Anyhow, snootiness aside, (what I've read of) Scalia's linguistic analysis strikes me as insightful.

Another linguistically interesting tidbit from Totenberg's article:

That contrasts with Thomas, who, when asked by interviewer Bryan Garner whether he would describe himself as a word lover, replied: "Not particularly … I like buses and football and cars."

Thomas noted that he was raised speaking a dialect called Geechee and wasn't comfortable speaking standard English until he was in his 20s.

Thomas was born in Pin Point, GA, and mostly raised in Savannah. According to the Wikipedia article,

The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which some scholars speculate to be related to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. The term Geechee is an emic term used by speakers (and can have a derogatory connotation depending on usage) and "Gullah" is a term that was generally used by outsiders but that has become a way for speakers to formally identify themselves and their language.


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    Isn't "nickname a clef" what a snoot might see as an incorrect (less tendentiously, non-standard) usage? A roman à clef is a novel in which real characters are disguised behind made-up names, like Gerald and Sara Murphy becoming Dick and Sue Diver in "Tender is the Night." But DFW describes "snoot" as a family code or shorthand for a category of persons–not quite the same thing, I think.

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    Bryan Garner bonded with Justice Scalia early on over their shared snootitude. (The DFW piece was, after all, in part a review of the 1st edition of Garner's Modern American Usage.) See Garner's "Tending to Your Snootitude" for more.

  3. Roy S said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    There's a somewhat dated expression describing the overindulgence of alcohol as "having a snootful". Without any data to back me, I've always felt this was somehow related to "snout". Could snoot in the sense of "snob" have something to do with having one's nose/snout in the air (or looking down one's nose/snout), or is this just a wild, fanciful stretch?

    [(myl) It seems pretty clear that "snoot" is a variant of "snout" — that's what the OED says. But except in the form "snooty", it seems to have been a rare or regional variant.]

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    I thought snoots typically denoted the objects cocked, not the persons cocking.

    [(myl) That's metonymy and/or synecdoche, man — think highbrow, hand, and the whole list of people identified as NSFW body parts.]

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    Also, that's a surprising (to me) use of "emic." Pike didn't coin it to mean merely "from an insider's viewpoint" but something more like "viewed as semantically contrastive part of a system." (My ability to define things seems to be eluding me today. More coffee, please!) Is it commonly used in this broader sense, or is that a quirk of the Wikipedia author?

  6. Bobbie said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    Why is this article entitled ."..THE Geechee? People from Georgia speak Geechee (or Gullah). Are they actually referred to as THE Geechee as a group, or is that just the language they speak? Would Thomas consider himself A Geechee?

    [(myl) Well, it's pretty normal for language names and ethnic names to work that way; and a little web search turns up things like

    Before I explain what a 'GeeChee' is, I need to explain what 'Gullah' is.

    Whenever I asked for a second portion of rice as a child, I can vividly remember my dad calling me a geechee — the nickname for a Gullah. All the grown-ups at the table would laugh. I grew up assuming that a geechee was anyone who ate lots of rice.

    Mr. Smith asked what a GeeChee was. Ms. Timmons responded that it was a Georgia Gullah.

    To call someone a Geechee was an insult, on the order of calling you black before black became positive …

    A geechee is someone who was born and grew up in Savannah. The name comes from the Ogeechee river

    But in fact I did it purely to annoy you ;-)…]

  7. Richard Sabey said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    @Rod The things cocked are snooks.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I suspect that Kennedy's peeve about denominal verbs is not general, but for those of recent origin. Apparently, 'incentivize' dates to 1970, several years after he completed law school. I further suspect that one could examine his writings and find a number of examples of older ones.

    [(myl) Of course. There's a linked list of his opinions here, and a quick scan of a few of them turns up "memorialize" and "fossilize" among others — including an opinion using "hospitalize", which the OED dates to 1901, and which Edwin Newman strongly denounced in 1976.

    For more crunchy ize-historical goodness, including Thomas Nashe's 1591 challenge to " [t]he ploddinger sort of unlearned Zoilists […] [who] object unto me […] the often coyning of Italionate verbes, which end all in ize," see "Centuries of disgust and horror?", 3/16/2009.]

  9. Dakota said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Not at all rare in my neck of the woods, but perhaps semi-humorous or rustic, certainly not for formal or academic use. Pigs have snoots, and snobs definitely have snoots. But you don't want a snootful of snus (just a pinch between your cheek and gum).

  10. Jesse said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 5:32 pm


    À clef refers to anything that works with a literal or figurative "key" — i.e. something that needs to be "unlocked". So nickname à clef means "you can't properly appreciate this term unless you know the 'big historical family joke' behind it". And using à clef in English with any noun other than roman is the penultimate in snootiness.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

    myl: That is very interesting about -ize revulsion. I wonder if it could have something to do with stress. I recall reading somewhere that -ize is a stress bearing suffix and can result in a stress clash if the 'ultima' in the root has stress. However, this would not constrain 'incentivize.'

    Maybe, the Critical Period Hypothesis should be revised to predict that -ize verbs can be happily acquired during this period, but no later.

    (A confession: 'incentivize' and 'incent' are not my favorite verbs)

  12. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    Both nds. and fy. versions of Wikipedia (Plattdütsch, Frisian) list snut for snout. The phonetics would be similar to snoot (English). The fy. puyd an accent, snút. The nl. version (Dutch) has snuit.

  13. Jake Nelson said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    On the snoots and word-creation issue, I may fall into the group myself- I tend to like words to have fairly precise, technical meanings. For new cases, I like to use a nonce form- generally something that's "correct", in that it's made up of an existing or back-formed root plus some affixes. I dislike words made up out of nowhere unless they have a clear relation to existing ones, but that's likely an outgrowth of my obsession with etymology.

    As for incentivize, I get irritated by its use simply because it's often used where incent would be more appropriate. (i.e., "We should incentivize good behavior.") I can see a good use for incentivize as a term for converting a system from negative to positive reinforcement.

    But this is just an instance of the general tendency (at least, so it seems to me) to form words by adding more affixes when removing existing ones would do the job.

  14. bloix said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    I heard that piece this morning and my immediate reaction was that a greater pack of hypocrites and bullshitters have never been assembled on the face of the earth. This Supreme Court writes wordy, poorly reasoned, bombastic, unreadable opinions, and Scalia is one of the poorest writers of the lot.

  15. bloix said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    PS – no one says incentivize any more. The current jargon is "incent."

  16. Chaon said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    "…mistakes in Safire's column's prose itself."

    Whoa now. That's just crazy talk.

  17. Bill Walderman said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

    Meanwhile, this:

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

    @Richard Sabey: Indeed they are! My bad.

  19. Faldone said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 5:50 am

    "…mistakes in Safire's column's prose itself."

    Whoa now. That's just crazy talk.

    Safire called them the Gotcha Gang.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    Further to Bill Walderman's posting of the link to that article on historical dictionary use at the Supreme Court, I have spent some time this afternoon at my day job reading through yesterday's opinion in the Janus Capital case, in which the majority opinion (by Justice Thomas) backs up its claims about the meaning-in-context of the verb "make" with citations to the OED as of 1933 and a 1934 Webster's, subsequently dissing/distinguishing the government's reliance on a looser definition from a 1958 Webster's. I assume (although the opinion doesn't actually make it explicit) that the reason for citations of this vintage is that the relevant occurrence of "make" is in a regulation administratively promulgated in 1948 under the authority of a statute enacted by Congress in 1934.

  21. Jim said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    "Why is this article entitled ."..THE Geechee? People from Georgia speak Geechee (or Gullah). Are they actually referred to as THE Geechee as a group, or is that just the language they speak? Would Thomas consider himself A Geechee?"

    I have heard individuals referred to in the singuler "He's a Geechee." The Geechee have a reputation for being irresponsible or trouble-makers. Years ago I had a sergeant who was proud of being a Geechee, and one time when he got into some kind of minor trouble explained it with "Yo sir, don't you know I'm a Geechee?" This was in Germany; he dealt a little hash on the side, probably just to maintain face. Thankfully we never caught him.

  22. Tom said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    @ Jake Nelson
    "As for incentivize, I get irritated by its use simply because it's often used where incent would be more appropriate."

    Why? Incentivize is a back formation from incentive, right? And isn't incent a back formation from incentivize? Mirriam-Webster dates the first known use of incent from 1981, incentivize from 1970. To my ear incent sounds like an ugly little runt bastard of a word. I can't imagine it being preferable to anything.

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