I read Sam Knight’s article about “Ronnie O’Sullivan, snooker’s greatest player” despite knowing nothing about snooker because (as often happens with the New Yorker) it was so well written it hooked me. (There’s also a great video to accompany it.) When I recommended it to my wife, I said it was about /ˈsnuːkər/, with long oo as in moot, and she said “Isn’t it /ˈsnukər/?” with short oo as in book. I looked it up in M-W and the AHD and said “You’re right, I wonder how I came up with the long-oo pronunciation?” Then I looked it up in the OED and discovered I must have heard a Brit say it, because /ˈsnuːkə(r)/ is the UK pronunciation. This must be one of the lesser-known transatlantic shibboleths; US dictionaries don’t mention the UK version, and vice versa (though I see Wikipedia gives both). I’m not sure how the US developed its own variant, since the game was invented by British Army officers less than 150 years ago and I don’t think has ever been popular in the US, though I speak under correction.

The etymology is unknown; the OED, in a century-old article, says:

Etymology: Of obscure origin.
It is commonly held that the word represents an allusive use of snooker n.1 a newly joined cadet, first applied to the game by Col. Sir Neville Chamberlain (1856–1944), a subaltern in the Devonshire Regiment stationed at Jabalpur in central India in 1875, with reference to the rawness of the play of a fellow officer. The story is often repeated, e.g. in The Times (1980) 29 Dec. 9.


  1. This was a favourite game I played with my old man on his pool table in Victoria, BC. We used the American pronounciation, the only one I’ve ever heard, though my faulty memory may have deleted the few times I may have heard the Brit pronounciation. And I don’t recall my father refering to it, though he spent a couple of years in Britain during the Second War.

  2. marie-lucie says

    I don’t play this game but I have heard snooker (with short vowel) among friends on many occasions, and seen it written on signs for places where the game is played. So perhaps it is more popular in Canada than in the US.

  3. jdmartinsen says

    On a recent Would I Lie to You, Richard Osman describes how as a child he created a superhero called Snooker-Table Man, and host Rob Brydon remarks, “If you were playing this game in Wales, you wouldn’t call iit /ˈsnuːkər/ . . . cause we don’t like the ‘oo’ sound. Same with tooth. We’d say tuth.” (Which sets up Lee Mack for a zinger.) The line is here, but the whole story is pretty funny and begins at 19:50.

  4. I’m not sure how the US developed its own variant

    Spelling pronunciation? All the other -ooker words I can think of have the lax vowel.

  5. From the article:

    “My arsehole had gone,” he told me. “My fight. I had nothing in me.”

    Is that a usual metaphor nowadays?

  6. I met a guy in Australia who used the UK pronunciation for the noun and the US pronunciation for the verb. I never actually heard him say “He snukered me at snuːker” but I’m confident he would have. (I use the UK pronunciation for both.)

  7. For some reason, I can hear my grandmother humming, “The flat footed floozie,” when I read the word, “snooker,” which I would assume is pronounced similarly to “book.”

    I would pay a quarter to hear the Aussie say, “He snukered me at snuːker”, though. 🙂

  8. It’s also pronounced /ˈsnukər/ in Wales, as it is by BBC snooker commentator Terry Griffiths.

  9. Snooker (pronounced like booker) was always more popular than billiards when I skipped high school classes in Toronto in the early-mid 60s to play the game. We played in a pool hall, though that’s not what the sign outside read. The common appellation was billiard academy, snooker club or some such. And while we knew that we were playing what was officially called snooker, among ourselves we were shooting pool or shooting a game of pool.

    if you got there early enough to help the proprietor take the covers off the tables, he’d let you play a game for free. Not a bad way to learn geometry either. Certainly more interesting than Mrs. Chenhall’s class.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    /ˈsnuːkər/ is the UK pronunciation.

    You surprise me. I pronounce it /ˈsnuːkə/, and I suspect that most non-rhotic speakers in the UK do so as well, as it’s the only pronunciation I can remember hearing.

  11. Sir JCass says

    I didn’t even realise the US had a different pronunciation of “snooker”. There again, I didn’t realise any Americans played it. I thought you guys were into pool. As far as I’m aware, most snooker players are from the UK and Ireland. There have been some notable Canadians (Cliff Thorburn, Bill Werbeniuk) and South-East/East Asians (the Thai James Wattana, for example). The Chinese are now making inroads into the game.

    I’m not an ardent snooker fan but it’s certainly watchable. Any sport where the contestants sit down for a pint of beer* between their turns is a good one in my book.

    *And a cigarette in the old days.

  12. I remember this very shibboleth from an episode of Magnum PI, and here it is. Kudos to writer Bruce Cervi.

  13. The same difference appears to affect snook (both the fish and the gesture) albeit less unequivocally.

  14. Despite being American, I’m like Matt’s Australian acquaintance above: long vowel for the noun (which I may have heard only from UK speakers on TV) and short for the verb. Not that either is something I have occasion to say often, if ever.

  15. Spelling pronunciation? All the other -ooker words I can think of have the lax vowel.

    Good point.

    You surprise me. I pronounce it /ˈsnuːkə/, and I suspect that most non-rhotic speakers in the UK do so as well, as it’s the only pronunciation I can remember hearing.

    Sorry, my bad. I copied “/ˈsnuːkə(r)/” from the OED, deleted the parens to show US usage, and then forgot to restore them (or just delete the r) for UK usage. I’ll fix it so others won’t be confused/annoyed.

    I remember this very shibboleth from an episode of Magnum PI, and here it is.

    I’m impressed with both your memory and your ability to find the segment.

  16. I’ve loved snooker since I was a child (I vividly remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the Taylor–Davis World Championship final in 1985), and have always called it /ˈsnuːkər/; in fact, I wasn’t even aware of the alternative pronunciation before. I’m also very impressed by mollymooly’s Magnum, P.I. reference.

  17. I’ve always been curious about the origin of the snooker term “plant” which means potting a ball by bouncing the white ball off a different red ball which goes into the target red and sends it into the hole, sort of ricochet shot, but I’ve never found an etymology.

  18. I’ve always assumed that noted New Jerseyian Snooki pronounces her name like the English version of snooker but maybe I’m assuming wrong. Are there are any trash-TV-watching Hattites who can say yea or nay on this?

  19. Stephen Bruce says

    (American) I also have short u in snooker the verb and in the noun denoting the position in pool/pocket billiards when the ball that you need to hit is blocked.

    Interestingly, the slang uses of the verb seem to be different in British and American English; the British usage is perhaps closer to the billiards metaphor. From my computer Oxford Dictionary of English:

    subject (oneself or one’s opponent) to a snooker. he potted yellow and green, and then snookered Davis on the brown. Hendry led, but then snookered himself.
    • Brit. leave (someone) in a difficult position; thwart: I managed to lose my flat keys—that was me snookered.
    • US trick, entice, or trap: they were snookered into buying books at prices that were too high.

    By the way, Mitchell and Webb have a funny series of sketches about British snooker announcers that everyone should check out.

  20. That was a bad miss great, thanks!

  21. David Marjanović says

    Is that a usual metaphor nowadays?

    I’ve never encountered it before, and I’m familiar with most Internet traditions.

  22. I suspect it has to do with this:

    Around the 1920s, we had no bottle and glass as rhyming slang meaning that a person lacked class, in the sense of being unimpressive or without style. This would seem to have been taken also to mean lacking in courage. Around this time the rhyming slang expression bottle and glass was used to mean arse … and this seems to have been an influence that led to forms like Has your bottle fallen out? which may suggest that bottle in such forms figuratively means “guts” and that the sense came from an ability to control one’s bottle (arse) in the face of bowel-melting threats.

  23. I thought you guys were into pool.

    I say that any boob can take and shove a ball in a pocket, and I call that sloth. The first big step on the road to degrada- I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon, then beer from a bottle!

    But anyhow, I do use /ˈsnʊkɚ/, despite not being at all familiar with the game, and I think TR’s guess about influence from spelling is the most likely. But one British long-vowel pronunciation that I do use is /woʊnt/, for the adjective and noun “wont”. My mother had a partially British upbringing, so I think I got that from her.

  24. Is that British? I’ve said it all my life, and it certainly wasn’t because of UK influence. I’m pretty sure I looked it up in a US dictionary and found that as the preferred pronunciation. How else would you pronounce it? If one said it the same as “want” (which would seem the other option), it would just lead to confusion.

  25. Eli Nelson says

    It could also be pronounced “wunt”, like in wonder and won. I found that’s entry lists /wɔnt/ /woʊnt/ /wʌnt/ in that order, and it’s unclear to me which would even be the inherited pronunciation; all of them have some analogies in terms of spelling (font, don’t, front), so each of them seems a plausible spelling-pronuciation that could arise spontaneously on either side of the Atlantic.

  26. I’ve always heard snooker with short u, and:
    – Snook, TX, also with a short u;
    – snookums, the over-endearing term of endearment, with both short and long u;
    – some person, long ago, with some kind of a British accent, pronouncing pool (the game) with a rounded but not particularly long u. That was long ago, and I didn’t notice what his other u’s were like.

  27. @languagehat: Hmm, I might be underestimating the prevalence of /woʊnt/ over here – it’s not a word that I hear too often. But I had an encounter with a Californian who was surprised that I didn’t say it like “want”.

  28. Here’s what the AHD5 says, only with IPA instead of SDR (Silly Dictionary Respellings):

    Usage Note: The most traditionally correct pronunciations of wont are /woʊnt/, the common pronunciation in Britain, sounding like the contraction won’t, and /wʌnt/, the historic American pronunciation, rhyming with hunt. However, the most common form of wont in contemporary American speech is probably /wɑnt/, which to most people’s ears sounds similar to (or even identical with) the word want. This /wɑnt/ pronunciation may in fact be motivated by a confusion of the meanings of wont and want, both of which have to do with personal inclination. In any case, all three of these pronunciations are acceptable, though the historic /wʌnt/ pronunciation may strike some listeners as odd or affected.

    I say /wɑnt/ myself, and never knew till today that there was any other pronunciation.

  29. Huh. Yet another source of confusion!

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    @Stephen Bruce:

    That is most interesting, because (although I never thought about it before) I actually have two definitely distinct verbs

    snooker (like verruca) “stymie, thwart”
    snooker (like hooker) “fool, entrap”, only in the context “snooker(ed) into”

    the first of which is certainly consciously linked for me with the game (which I pronounce Britannically) while the second is not; perhaps I picked it up in some American context, though I’ve never (previously) thought of it as a US import.

    The first sense certainly originates from the game. Perhaps the second is only a chance resemblance? My Chambers Dictionary is too parochial to list it at all, much less speculate on its origin.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Actually, I suppose I should say that the name of the game originates from the first sense, rather than vice versa. I think it began life in the vastly more respectable (much duller) game of billiards.

  32. Bathrobe says

    Spelling pronunciation? All the other -ooker words I can think of have the lax vowel.

    Yes, you could be right. You wouldn’t catch people rhyming ‘euchre’ or ‘lucre’ with ‘hooker’.

  33. The Wiki article about snooker quotes an article that appeared in The Independent: ‘The name chosen was an appropriation of the slang term “snookers”, or “new cadets” (Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual of 1872 wrote, “These embryo generals were called by the somewhat sneering terms of `snookers’ or `last-joined’).’

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    But then all (?) the other -ook words have the lax vowel, so that’s inevitable. It’s one of those sound changes that (in Southern UK English) only made it partway through the lexicon and produced a split, as with the similar types in -oot. You put a boot on your foot.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    If the sense “stymie” was in fact primary, and the game named after it, might “snooker” be connected with “snook” (of the sort that one cocks)?

    Given that snookering your opponent is not dissimilar to cocking a snook at him …

    And that (in S UK) snook (in various senses) is pretty much unique among -ook words in having the tense vowel, so there is a common phonological oddity.

    Are there any citations for “snooker” in billiards prior to the presumed invention of Snooker-the-Game, or am I just imagining this?

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    How do you pronounce these guys? (Or, how would you pronounce them if ever called upon to do so?)

    On occasions when the matter has ever crossed my mind, I think I’ve been mentally rhyming them with snooks, but on reflection I think I was pretty certainly wrong.

    It seems to me that spelling pronunciation of -ook is if anything going to work in the direction of changing the tense vowel into the lax rather than vice versa. Even a presumably recentish arrival like “Chinook” is always lax.

  37. I had no idea that anybody pronounced “wont” differently from “want.” I have the usual American pronunciation of “snooker,” but “mook” (a word I don’t like very much) has a tense vowel.

  38. Spook, a 19C borrowing from Dutch, is tense.

  39. Bathrobe says

    I would pronounce ‘stook’ as /stuːk/.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Snook (the fish) is apparently from Dutch too.
    It would make sense that more recent borrowings might escape the laxing change.

    I’d say “stook” to rhyme with “look” if I ever said the word at all.

  41. I can’t see the word “wont” without thinking of Jonathan Miller’s impression of Bertrand Russell:

  42. There’s “gook” and “kook”.

    And I thought the hobbit surname “Took” was not pronounced like the verb, but I could be wrong.

  43. I always said it like the verb, but I don’t know why.

  44. Trond Engen says

    The Hobbit surname ‘Took’ should have a long vowel, at least in my mind, since it’s obviously cognate to No. dial./Sw. tok [tu:k] “fool, madman”. But that doesn’t really help, since the whole set of irregularily split English long o’s, also the verb, have Scandinavian long vowel cognates. It might be better understood through Herefordshire regularities, but I can’t help you with those — except a vague feeling that the North begins at Severn.

  45. It’s pronounced /tuk/, but that’s because the Tooks lived in the Northfarthing and therefore their version of the Common Speech is slightly Scottish in pronunciation. Any relatives they had in the rest of the Shire would call themselves Tuck.

  46. marie-lucie says

    Could one (at least) of the snook words be related to sneak ?

  47. Trond Engen says

    One way or other, surely, but these are muddy waters. Even sneak is irregular.

  48. As a kid, I wondered how Took ought to be pronounced. My father and my kindergarten teacher pronounced it differently when they read The Hobbit to me. None of the pronunciations really stuck in my head until I received the boxed set of Nicol Willaimson reading the book. It’s really a wonderful performance, and I remember wishing (even at age eight) that they could have done a recording of the complete text, regardless of how many LPs that required. Williamson’s “Took” was unlike any pronunciation I had heard before, but it instantly seemed right. You can first hear it at about 0:56 in chapter 1, and it indeed sounds Scottish—which is not surprising given Williamson’s background.

  49. Chris McG says

    Barry Took pronounced his name tu:k, but obviously Hobbit-names needn’t follow IRL-name pronunciations.

  50. We are told that Took is a transliteration from the Hobbitish name Tûk, of unknown meaning. It is not a translation into English onomastics, unlike Baggins, Brandybuck, Gamgee. The circumflex indicates a long or overlong vowel (it’s not clear which; overlong vowels were confined to monosyllables, but some languages are transcribed with circumflexes only, like Dwarvish and Orkish).

  51. Rodger C says

    IIRC circumflexes were also T’s normal practice for all vowels in Mannish languages.

  52. Definitely true for Adûnaic as spoken in Númenor, but the Common Speech had a lot of borrowings from other languages, including Sindarin, and may have had an acute/long vs. circumflex/overlong phonemic or allophonic distinction.

  53. “All the other -ooker words I can think of have the lax vowel”
    Perhaps, but what about hookah? In most British English, wouldn’t it rhyme with snooker? There’s a bit of comic verse in their somewhere.

  54. Huh. Someone really should have corrected my pronunciation of wont years ago.


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