“Snooker” (verb)

Reader Calum Aikman writes:

“I was wondering if you could perhaps find out how frequently the word ‘snookered’ now features in contemporary American discourse. It literally means ‘to confound’ or ‘to place in an impossible situation’, and is a word that I’ve always considered quintessentially British, for it derives from the game of snooker (which, if you’re unaware, is a form of billiards popular in the UK; it gets its name from the tactic of ‘snookering’, whereby a player obstructs the path between cue ball and object ball in order to force his/her opponent to commit a foul). Few Americans seem to have ever encountered snooker, so imagine my surprise last week when watching an episode of Judge Judy and hearing the eponymous courthouse diva using ‘snookered’ several times whilst berating a particularly egregious example of modern youth. In fact, she must be quite fond of the term, as she deployed it again on the Queen Latifah Show in 2013, as shown here:

“Is this a NOOB? I would never have thought so, but if such an unadulterated product of Noo Yawk as Judy Sheindlin is using it, then I suspect it may perhaps have trickled down to the level of ordinary conversation in the U.S.”

Great suggestion. I actually remember the first time I became aware of the word. It was on July 31, 1987, when I was watching the U.S. Congress’s Iran-Contra hearings. Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan testified about his frustration that Iran had not freed American hostages, despite the U.S. sending arms to the country. He said he told President Ronald Reagan: “We’d been snookered again, and how many times do we put up with this rug merchant kind of stuff.?” (Incidentally, after the testimony, rug merchants lodged a protest.)

I particularly remember the way Regan, a Massachusetts native, pronounced “snookered” non-rhotically, that is, without sounding the “r.” And speaking of pronunciation, Americans pronounce the first syllable of the word to rhyme with “book,” and British people to rhyme with “nuke.”

Looking into the history of the word, the OED dates both the noun (the game of snooker) and the verb to 1889. The verb’s first citations are in line with the snooker strategy described by Mr. Aikman, and the first figurative use–meaning “to place in an impossible position; to balk, ‘stymie’.”– is in 1915. A line from a 1925 novel is, “‘I can’t see any solution,’ he said. ‘I’m snookered.’”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms British origin but indicates American use of the verb rising in the 1960s and surpassing the Brits in about 1979.

My sense is that Americans use is the word in a slightly different way than is suggested by the OED definition. Regan seems to have meant something like fooled, swindled, bamboozled. More recently, a right-wing figure named Allen West claimed George W. Bush “got snookered” when he referred to Islam as a religion of peace. And Judge Judy tells Queen Latifah: “If you choose a bad boy, you’re going to get snookered.” She actually might have meant “put in an impossible position,” but her affect and tone of voice suggests something more devious.

The word has appeared five times in the New York Times in 2021, generally in the bamboozled sense, as in this line about the con games of Jeffrey Epstein: “Journalists were among those who allowed themselves to be snookered.”

Has the word similarly shifted meanings in the U.K.? I await an answer from my British readers.

Update: Judging from the comments (which I commend to your attention), there does indeed seem to be such a difference. And linguist Lynne Murphy sends a link to a Lexico.com definition that confirms it:

17 thoughts on ““Snooker” (verb)

  1. Nope.

    The description you made here is about right and would make perfect sense on both sides of the water.

    The word in is used her in the UK in two contexts: first it has a rhetorical meaning exactly as you described of a situation made, at best, extremely difficult or impossibly embarrassing or secondly, in its original sporting term from the game of Snooker, it is where a player forces through skillful manipulation of the balls on the table to put his opponent in an illegal situation requiring foul-play to resolve – a situation where he forfeits points. The skill in this game of Snooker comes from being able to repeat the snooker situation after the opponent’s foul play, forcing more errors and forfeits of points to where he loses the game or concedes.

  2. I’m a Brit, and have only heard it with the “impossible position” meaning, but then it’s not very commonly used – maybe because the need for the “impossible position” wording arises less frequently than the “you’re buggered” meaning that seems be associated with American usage.
    And here’s a little song about snooker for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpuzSPmsNzQ which contributes to this discussion in no way at all.

  3. I believe the game of Snooker took its name from the term ‘snookered’, rather than the other way round. FROM MEMORY, I think ‘snooker’ was c.19th army slang; Snooker began as a variant of billiards played by army officers, which placed an emphasis on putting your opponent in difficulties – or ‘snookering’ him.

    1. Just looked up “snooker” in the OED. JMPO’s memory is right, as the earliest use is as a slang term to describe a new army officer cadet (1872). The earliest reference to the game of “Snooker” or “Snooker’s Pool” is a few years later in 1889. The etymology for the game is described by the OED as “It is commonly held that the word represents an allusive use of snooker, a newly joined cadet, first applied to the game by Col. Sir Neville Chamberlain (1856–1944), a subaltern in the Devonshire Regiment stationed at Jabalpur in central India in 1875, with reference to the rawness of the play of a fellow officer.”

  4. I’ve only ever thought of it or used it ‘the put in an impossible position’ way, just like in the game. I always suspected that snooker is not played in the US, but do Americans play billiards, which is more genteel than snooker or pool?

  5. Yes, I’ve only ever used it in the “put in an impossible position” meaning.

    It amuses me that snooker was invented by Neville Chamberlain – not the British Prime Minister but an officer in the Indian army of the same name. I also recall the BBC occasionally broadcasting snooker games in the early sixties, when TV was all in black and white. It took the introduction of colour for the game to become popular.

  6. Incidentally, both Chambers and Wikipedia suggest a snooker was army slang for a raw cadet, I suppose equivalent to the US “rookie”.

  7. As a Brit, I agree with the majority of the other commentators, I have only heard/used the term in the sense of being put into an impossible situation.

    Oh – and “Pot Black” (the programme that first brought snooker to TV) was always broadcast in colour (on BBC2 – the first channel to broadcast in colour) – but most of us at the time only had monochrome TVs. There is the famous “Colemanballs” commentary on one programme when the late Ted Lowe (the commentator) allegedly said “… and for those of you watching in black and white, the pink ball is next to the green.”

    1. Although Pot Black was the show that made snooker popular, as I said, I remember watching it in the early sixties – in black and white, of course. A search of the BBC Radio Times archive lists games being shown in the Saturday afternoon Grandstand programme from the late fifties to the mid-sixties.

      Incidentally, it was Sir David Attenborough, then head of BBC2 who was responsible for starting Pot Black.

  8. While the game snooker is little-played in the US, other forms of billiards are quite common. People play “8-ball”, and “9-ball” and “straight pool” and other games as well. As other commenters have noted, the game snooker takes its name from the term “to snooker”, and the adjective “snookered”. The word “snookered” is definitely used in the US as term of art in billiards.

    And yes, I agree that the metaphorical extension of the term outside the billiards context does sometime mean confused or baffled, rather than the more literal sense of blocked, thwarted, or stymied. (“Stymie” is a very close analogue to “snooker” – I think it comes from golf rather than billiards, but means much the same thing)

    1. OED definition of “stymie” (originally “stimie”): “An opponent’s ball which lies on the putting green in a line between the ball of the player and the hole he is playing for, if the distance between the balls is not less than six inches.” The verb appears in 1857, and the first figurative (non-golf) sense in 1902.

  9. I’ve updated the post to include the Lexico.com definition of “snooker,” which confirms the U.S./U.K. difference in meaning:

    “British: Leave (someone) in a difficult position; thwart.
    ‘I managed to lose my car keys—that was me snookered’

    “US: Trick, entice, or trap.
    ‘they were snookered into buying books at prices that were too high’”

    https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/snooker

  10. I can see how the US sense might derive from the UK sense. If you snooker someone at the table, you force them to make a shot — a more difficult and dangerous one — that you would prefer not to try. So you are trapped into doing something against your wishes.

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