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: