The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!”

Is it possible that the 1910 children’s novel, The Bobbsey Twins at School, was a prescient influence on hip-hop?

“Oh, Snap! Snap!” cried Freddie. “Don’t go there!” But Snap kept on, and Freddie, afraid lest his pet dog be bitten, caught up a stone and threw it at the place.

Probably not. But “Oh snap!” and “Don’t go there!” were clearly phrases that begged to be loosened into the English language. And they both made their way into the American vernacular through hip-hop.

This article concerns “Oh snap!” — that handy phrase which accompanies a moment of consternation or a dutiful dissing. The phrase has seen more frequent use in mainstream media, and, in 2009, it is just about at the point where “My bad” was in 2004. Here again, we have two words that linger in popular culture well past their shelf life, a term that once populated the lingua franca of a minority subculture and that is now loosened from the lips of Caucasians who think they are in the know.

But where did “Oh snap!” came from? And why did it take two decades to establish itself prominently in mainstream culture?

I’ve become more than a tad obsessed with these questions, but I have developed a working theory.

Now if you’re interested in slang, you can take one of two positions. Get excited by it or get smug about it. The Indianapolis Monthly‘s Cara McDonald (writing in July 2004, no less, well after “Oh snap!” was in popular use) chose the former:

She sparkles and burbles, all oh my goshes and oh my goodnesses; when she forgets where she put her tracks and shouts, “Oh, snap!” — presumably a euphemism for “shit.”

And here’s what the linguists have to say. We are informed unhelpfully by The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that “oh snap!” was “used as a mild oath.” But there appears to be no effort by Connie Elbe, the cited linguist who “discovered” the phrase in October 2002 and published the results as editor of UNC-CH Campus Slang, to track down its cultural references. (Elbe, incidentally, was thanked in the acknowledgments section in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, which may explain why that novel’s campus patois is out-of-touch.)

In Alonzo Westbrook’s 2002 book, Hip Hoptionary, he identifies “Oh, snap” as either an “epiphany; to understand something, like a light turned on” or “a gesture where one literally snaps a finger after a statement to emphasize a point, like the period at the end of a sentence.”

But the first time I heard “Oh snap!” was in Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” (The usage is best observed in the above video at the 4:12 mark, so that one can get a sense of the timing preceding the “Oh snap!” moment.) This was in 1989. And “Oh snap!” was quickly picked up by many of the high school punkasses — including me — who were likewise amused by Markie’s deliberately awful singing.

Markie, however, was hardly the first. The earliest written trace I can find of “Oh snap!” is in William Hauck Watkins and Eric N. Franklin’s 1984 volume, Breakdance!:

I said, “Oh, snap, what’s that?” He said, “It’s the new style called breaking.” I said, “It looks like you’re going to break your body.”

Breaking did not quite survive. But “Oh snap!” certainly did. A hip-hop group by the name of Latin Empire used “Oh snap!” in a Spring 1991 interview published in Centro 3, 2. The first USENET use of the phrase was, not surprisingly, on November 7, 1997 on rec.music.hip-hop. Even a rock fan by the name of Dwayne Lutchna used the phrase in a This Week in Rock segment that appeared on MTV. “Oh snap!” was making the rounds.

But it didn’t entirely stick. At least not in the way that it has today. For a while, it looked as if the phrase would disappear into the crevices with “Hells yeah!” and “getting jiggy with it.” But then comedians like Tracy Morgan and Dave Chappelle began using “Oh snap!” in their routines. Then it became fair game for everybody. (It is now used regularly by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.)

The big question is where Markie and his friends got the tip from. Is it possible that the phrase came from England?

From Norman Harrison’s Once a Miner (1954) — a hard depiction of Southeast English mining:

Oh, snap. All right; you’d better get yours if you want.

We see the phrase also in the 1994 film, Tom and Viv, which is interesting, considering that the film is a period piece. “Oh snap. I was in Lagos,” says Maurice Haigh-Wood.

From Peter Ackroyd’s novel, First Light (1996):

“Tell me,” he added, more comfortably, “what are you drinking?”

“Gin and it.”

“Oh snap. So am I. Isn’t it lovely?”

So we see a British usage of “Oh snap!” from four decades before that is quite similar to the American usage of “Oh snap!” in the 1980s and 1990s.

If “Oh snap!” did come across the Atlantic and make its way into the hip-hop community, one wonders how this happened. Was there some seminal moment in which “Oh snap!” was unfurled at a breakdancing showdown? A moment in which all witnessing the usage of “Oh snap!” felt compelled to remember it and cite it to their friends? Did “Oh snap!” serve as a response to “Snap out of it,” which was possibly considered a less definitive term?

These are questions that require an investigation in which it may not be possible to find the missing link. But assuming that “Oh snap!” crossed the Atlantic, the American and British forms prove that a phrase can evolve in two different nations and adopt an attitude specific to each, even when the phrase conveys the same meaning.

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20 Comments

  1. rumors of break dancing’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

  2. [...] Move over William Safire: The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!” [...]

  3. Everyone I know uses “Oh, snap” the way Alonzo Westbrook defines it, “like a light turned on” or a sudden realization.

    As in, “Aren’t you forgetting your cars keys?”

    “Oh, snap, thanks. I wouldn’t have gone far without those.”

  4. The Bobbsey Twins series was published that early? 1910? really???

    But as to the topic at hand– this is not at all how “oh, snap!” is being used these days– as a synonym for “touché,” or more colloquially,”gotcha!” My guess is that it came into use in its present form sometime after the popularization of the hand gesture involving a snap and drawing the letter Z in the air.

  5. I remember as a kid getting together with some other kids trying to come up with a word that we could use instead of cussing. After awhile we came up with snap (which would mean shit) the idea was to cuss but not get into trouble) so if something funny or surprising happened we could say ‘oh snap!’ this was upperstate new york 1977 so the word ‘or the idea for it’ used in this way has been around for awhile. My theory is a bunch of kids came up with this brainstorm independent of each other and it got into the bloodstream of popular culture that way.It fits, and may even explain why it’s so hard to trace the origin of it’s modern usuage, because it has multiple origins.

  6. My understanding is that a “snap” is a witty insult related to the African American verbal game known as “the dozens.” So when Person A says something particularly funny about Person B’s mother, the observers will say “oh snap!” to mark the occasion. Perhaps the word “snap” relates to the speed of the rejoinders.

  7. Around 79′ Irvington, NY went “Oh snap” crazy afterI brought it there from the Bronx, where I was born and still hung around. We were Bronx Irish Catholic teens immitating blacks from the projects. I certainly didn’t coin the phrase, but it spread through Westchester like wildfire after that. I would have copywritten my plagerism, had I known it would be so big.

  8. The first time I heard it was from Biz Markie too and wondered why Tracy Morgan always gets credit. I went on a mission to find the answer and this post helped out greatly! Thank you!!

  9. [...] Edward Champion’s online article The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!” he traces the phrase back 60 years to England and says oh, snap was first popularly used in America [...]

  10. [...] Then, there’s this from “The Mysterious Origins of Oh, Snap“: [...]

  11. I actually heard the phrase “oh snap” used in a classic black and white movie from the 40s. (cannot remember what the movie was called now though). i remember hearing it while watching the film and thinking- “huh, so that’s where that came from, guess it’s been around longer than i thought”.
    whether it was used by the hip-hop community first i doubt soley because of that movie…but i do know that rappers tend to bring back old things- beats, rhythms, styles, and so it’s not a stretch to think they’d bring back old sayings as well.

  12. The British example cited is clearly a reference to the card game Snap. Each player shows cards at the same time, and if there’s a match, the first one to say “snap!” gets all the cards. So the person saying “snap” just meant, “So am I.” I don’t think this is necessarily related to the current usage, which used to confuse me because I kept trying to understand where the match was…

  13. Not to be too picky, but since we’re talking about fine points of vocabulary: let’s talk about the difference between “loosened” and “loosed.”

  14. While collecting material based on the history of urban music in New York, I recently came across a privately printed pamphlet which was published in 1981 by a Harlem teenager named Gregory Grove. The pamphlet is titled, “Talk What You Know: a collection of Harlem street talk”, and is a compilation of slang words and their definitions. There is an entry for “Oh Snap”, meaning “Oh Wow”. I haven’t been able to find any info online about the book or the author but I thought you might find it interesting as an early in-print usage of the term.

  15. My dad and I had an argument whether it was actually from the Disney Channel show ‘That’s So Raven’. Apparently, I was wrong as I have learned that ‘Oh snap’ goes back farther than I realized. :D

  16. [...] this image a few hours ago, I became curious about the origins of “oh snap!” I found this post. My favorite use of the phrase is in Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” video from 1989 [...]

  17. “Oh Snap” was already common urban slang when I was a kid in Brooklyn in the mid to late 1960s.

  18. I was in high school in 1989, but the first time I heard the term was on Youtube a few years ago.

  19. It comes from the card game of the same name. Use google, you’ll find it exists. Since 1880s, according to etymonline.com. In the game, you say snap! to win a card that you have a duplicate of. So it is used to say “already have”, (similar but different to “same same”) then often used for “can’t, already have”, and then for making a date, when you belatedly realise you already filled the date, “can’t, already got something on then,” which I’m sure you’ll find in plenty of tv and movies. Then people ignorant of the card game, because you kids all spend your lives on computer now (or grew up where the card game is unknown), don’t realise it implies collision/duplication, and you parrot, and so the “can’t” part is understood, but not the rest of the meaning, so now it just means “broken” because those people did at least get that part of the meaning … “snap” is the sound of a thing breaking. OK?

  20. […] button-looking things on it.  I press one.  There’s a click and the clock comes back on.  Oh, snap!  It’s a plug beside a sink and, oddly enough, it’s got a GFI switch in it.  […]

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