The game itself, a combination of pool and a game called pyramids, which involved 15 coloured balls (arranged in a pyramid, unsurprisingly) plus the white, was devised as a diversion from the boredom of billiards by British Army officers in India in the 1870s. 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').
According to tradition, the term was first applied to the new game by Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain (not the Neville Chamberlain). In 1875, he was a subaltern in the Devonshire Regiment in Jubbulpore, and used the word to describe the inept performance at the table of one of his fellow officers. He died in 1944, having lived to see the sport he named take a grip on the old country.