words : Snap

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The Independent Online
"LAST WEEK Mr Tony Blair, the Labour leader, put his party on alert for a snap election," said the Daily Telegraph report; but honest John Major, interviewed in the same paper, was having none of that. No snapper, he.

The whole idea of a snap vote - the expression is Victorian in origin - was that it was taken when the opposition wasn't expecting it, and with any luck would be thinking of something else, or had nipped out for a moment. Some took the view that it wasn't quite cricket, like delivering the ball before the batsman was ready.

However, snap has lost some of its bite now. Though its association with fierce dogs, sharks and crocodile's jaws is admittedly still there, this has tended to give way to the simpler idea of instant speed, or snappiness. It's the animal's reflexes we're thinking of ("They'll have your leg off before you can blink"), rather than the sharpness of its wicked old teeth. A snap decision isn't necessarily designed to catch the competition napping. It is more likely to be just one made on the spur of the moment. And there is no guile in a snap judgment - more a suggestion that the person making it hasn't done their homework. A worker's packed lunch is, in some places, still called his snap. and I suppose you could say it was a quick bite, but not in the old sense of the word.

Anyway. a snap began , in the 15th century, by being a vicious closing of the teeth. A twig was said to snap because it made the same sort of noise, and indeed the word's origin seems to have been imitative, or onomatopoeic. Those old-fashioned handbags, with two chromium-plated lugs which cross each other when the bag is snapped shut, sound much the same.

Mr Major hasn't got one of those.

Nicholas Bagnall