SNELL adj sharp, keen
In Old English, ‘snel’ means swift or quick. By the time we get to Older Scots, we find it applied to weather, weapons and people. So, in the late fourteenth century, John Barbour writes of “schowris snell”; Andrew Wynton in The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (1420) describes “Haylstanys bath scharpe and snelle” and Gilbert of the Haye’s Buke of the Governaunce of Princis (1496) tells us “The wyndis ar scharp and snell and sare bytand”. Later, Burns sympathises with the homeless mouse about to experience “Bleak December’s winds ensuin, Baith snell an’ keen!”
Used of weapons, it means sharp or damaging. We not only find references to snell swords but we also have this from R. Baillie’s Anabaptism (1639):
“the walls of Amsterdam I wish might hold in their snell brasen shott from these places of our towres that are most weake”.
Used of people in Older Scots, it means sharp or severe, but by the time we get to the early eighteenth century it ameliorates to bear the additional meanings of quick, nimble, agile and keen in body or mind. Allen Ramsay is being complimentary when he writes in 1720 “That in ilk action, wise and snell, You may shaw manly fire”.
You still need to look carefully at the context, however, as the older meanings are not lost. R. Forbes in Ajax his Speech to the Grecian Knabs (1748) tells us that Diomede “wi’ snell words him sair did snib”.
Snell-nebbit means astute, but snell gabbit means caustic in speech. It is a word which lends itself well to figurative applications.
A snell blow is painful. A snell smell or taste is acrid, pungent or bitter. Thus we have a very clear impression of the the character described in The Poets and Poetry of Linlithgowshire (1896):
“gay snell mustard he is whiles”.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries
First Published 2nd July 2012