You May Hear The Word ‘Sniveling’ More Times Today Than In All Of NPR’s Previous 46 Years

We hadn’t heard a presidential candidate call an opponent a “sniveling coward” until yesterday. But there it was, in newscasts and on NPR.org. Add it to the many things we hadn’t heard before this campaign.

Language lovers may be wondering:

Has that phrase or just the word “sniveling” been heard on NPR before?

A search of our transcripts, which go back to 1990, turns up two examples of the specific phrase.

- A 1991 piece from Sylvia Poggioli in which Croatian soldiers and “Serb insurgents” are heard trading insults on their walkie-talkies. “You’re a sniveling coward,” one Croatian called his enemy. (Google Translate tells us that in Croatian it would be “sniveling kukavica.”)

- A 1995 report by John Burnett about closing arguments in the trial of 11 Branch Davidians. The U.S. attorney said one of the defendants was a “sniveling coward” for firing at law officers from a place where there were children hiding.

“Sniveling” or “snivelling” turn up in transcripts 39 times. The closest example to this week’s usage is from 1992 when Mary Matalin, political director of President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign, said Bill Clinton’s campaign was full of “sniveling hypocrites.” She later apologized. She also later married Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.

A search of NPR.org turns up 16 examples of “sniveling” or “snivelling.”

Where does the word “snivel” come from?

- Oxford Dictionaries says “Late Old English (recorded only in the verbal noun  snyflung ‘mucus’), from snofl, in the same sense; compare with snuffle.”

- Webster’s says “[Middle English] snivlen < [Old English] snyflan < base seen in snofl, mucus.”

What does “snivel” mean?

- In the context put forward this week, it is “to fret or complain in a whining, tearful manner … to make a whining, tearful, often false display of grief, sympathy, disappointment, etc.” (Webster’s)

Did Shakespeare ever use the word?

- Shakespeare search engines indicate the answer is no. But here’s one highfalutin place it shows up: In playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams calls Elizabeth “Goody” Proctor “a lying, cold, sniveling woman.”

Why is this post attached to the NPR Ethics Handbook?

- As you’ve hopefully figured out the past two years, “Memmos” aren’t always about ethical issues. Sometimes we just have a few minutes to spare during lunch and start poking around.

(“Memmos;” March 25, 2016)

March 25, 2016

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