The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!”

Posted by in Language, Slang

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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