I love words. I regularly read popular etymology books (most recently The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words, by the Anu Garg, founder of the erstwhile A.Word.A.Day web service). I pride myself on having a wide and peculiar vocabulary. I own the Compact OED and consult it faithfully.
Today, however, spellchecker pointed revealed a lexical gaffe I’ve been making for some time…
Snuck is not a proper word!
From the beginning, and still in standard British English, the past tense and past participle forms are sneaked. Just as mysteriously, in a little more than a century, a new past tense form, snuck, has crept and then rushed out of dialectal use in America, first into the areas of use that lexicographers label jocular or uneducated, and more recently, has reached the point where it is a virtual rival of sneaked in many parts of the English-speaking world. But not in Britain, where it is unmistakably taken to be a jocular or non-standard form.
Sneaked? Surely I snuck into my cottage the other night to review promised repairs. Have I been saying snuck all these years by mistake?
Yep. Sneak is first recorded in the works of Shakespeare, who uses it several times: “A poor, unminded outlaw, sneaking home” (Henry IV, part I); “Sneak not away, sir; for the friar and you must have a word” (Measure for Measure); and others.
The earliest examples for snuck appear only in written representations of American dialect or other nonstandard use. No one is clear why, as there are no other “eek” verbs with an “uck” past tense. Can you think of any? By mid-century last, snuck began to be more common in fiction representing uneducated speech; mostly for humorous effect, similar to the use of ain’t in media today. Apprently, in the past 50 years, snuck has been found more and more in neutral contexts; used as a standard past form without any suggestion of humor.
So, presently, snuck is widespread in the US, even among educated speakers, and in the speech of people my generation and younger it is norm. We are commonly unaware that sneaked exists, and many, like me, think that it sounds as wrong as many older speakers think snuck does.
Some resources say, that because useage should define grammar not archaic rules, snuck should be considered fully standard in American English. But I prefer to be fussy about such things. No more snuck.