Thursday, August 18, 2016

Word of the day: snag

Go out walking in nature preserve. Spot new specimen: snag . The Oxford English Dictionary explains:

snag: N Amer. A standing dead tree.
Webster’s New International Dictionary , second edition, is more expansive:
Forestry. A tree from which the top has been broken. A rampike, esp. one tall enough to be an extra fire hazard.
And Webster’s Third:
A standing dead tree from which parts or all of the top have fallen; esp.: one that is more than 20 feet tall.
The Third directs the reader to stub :
the part of a tree or plant that remains fixed in the earth when the stem is cut down or broken off.
So a snag is taller than a stub.

Following the history of snag in the OED , it’s easy to see how a word having to do with trees came to signify an unexpected complication. The earliest meaning of snag (1577–87):
A short stump standing out from the trunk, or from a stout branch, of a tree or shrub, esp. one which has been left after cutting or pruning; also, a fruiting spur.
Later (1807):
A trunk or large branch of a tree imbedded in the bottom of a river, lake, etc., with one end directed upwards (and consequently forming an impediment or danger to navigation). orig. U.S.
And shortly thereafter (1830):
fig. An impediment or obstacle. Also, a disadvantage, a hitch; a defect.
Followed in 1904 by “N Amer. A standing dead tree.”

The nature preserve in which I went walking had a sign on a trail with vocabulary. A dead tree on the ground: log . A dead tree still standing: snag .

As for rampike, Webster’s Second says:
A dead tree; a pointed stump or partly-burned tree; a tree broken off by the wind leaving a splintered end to the trunk.
I know that visitors are not supposed to take anything with them from a nature preserve. But I think that taking the word snag is okay.

comments: 3

Geo-B said...

A dead tree on your wall: paneling.

Chris said...

I always assumed (wrongly, I gather) that it was a fishing or boating term: your hook or anchor got snagged on a fallen tree below the waterline. A word for the glossaries in Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, if it's not there already.

Michael Leddy said...

George, in that case, I’m surrounded by snags.

Chris, the OED does have a fishing-related meaning: “Angling. To catch (fish),spec. with a bare hook; to catch illicitly or improperly.” But it’s boats and ships that are getting done in in other OED entries. I’ll keep Landmarks in mind — it sounds like a wonderful book.