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Recently I heard and an explanation for what the exclamation "Snap!" meant. He stated that it comes from the kid's card game where you yell "Snap" at a certain time to win the card pile. I'm vaguely familiar with the game, but was under the impression that the exclamation predates the game.

So I know how it's used: Some bit of information really surprises you so you say "Snap!" Or, something goes wrong so you say "Aw, Snap!" Or, a friend really delivers on an insulting quip to another friend so you say "Snap!" Or, what I've seen less commonly, you do something at almost exactly the same time as another, so you both say "Snap!" This usage is most similar to the game.

So when and where did this usage originate?

  • I'm not sure I've used the correct tags. – fredsbend Aug 17 '14 at 17:08
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    The only sense of the exclamation which I have heard is the last one you mention. This may be a US/UK thing, or I may just be old. – Colin Fine Aug 17 '14 at 18:12
  • @ColinFine I agree, I have only heard this usage from the card game where you shout SNAP when two identical cards are played. So it transfers to any situation where similar things happen, eg you might say "I just bought [latest DVD]" and your friend would say "Oh, snap, I just bought it too." – Mynamite Aug 17 '14 at 21:35
  • @ColinFine What I'm finding so far is that the duplicate scenario usage is the oldest, to at least the 1950's. Hip hop, and comedians such as Tracy Morgan and Dave Chappelle popularized the other usages. Perhaps its an age thing or a UK thing, that you have never heard the other usages. – fredsbend Aug 17 '14 at 22:36
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According to Wikipedia and Ngram:

Oh snap

  • The first known use of the expression "oh snap" was in 1984 in a book about breakdancing.

Its origin is not certain. The following link offers a few hypotheses:

http://www.edrants.com/the-mysterious-origins-of-oh-snap/

  • The Ngram's of "oh snap" "snap" and "snap!" show different things. First use was certainly not 1984. – fredsbend Aug 19 '14 at 20:29
  • @fredsband - I think that 'oh snap' is the expression to look up in Ngram.. which shows its constant usage from 1984. ( other previous usages can not be ruled out though). The answer provided by Arrofar is actually the link I gave in my answer posted before his one. – user66974 Aug 19 '14 at 20:39
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Most likely the term originated with The Dozens, an insult game that African American children used to play to toughen themselves up for the verbal abuse they had to put up with as adults to survive. Its mostly known in wider culture for being the source of most "Yo' Mamma" jokes.

The individual one-liners themselves, if they are good enough, are referred to as "snaps". I do have to admit though, I personally witnessed many games during my grade school days (1970's), and never heard "Oh snap!". A more typical reaction is collective laughter and expressions of second-hand pain.

However, if you follow the link Josh61 and others provided, you'll see that the author pretty convincingly traced the modern cultural explosion of the phrase back to African American culture of the late 80's(breakdancing and hip-hop music). The listeners to this phrase in those cultures would all have been very familiar with snaps from the Dozens. So when first heard, this phrase would have invoked a mental image in the listeners of equating something with a really great one-liner. And this is why it is particularly related to a really good "insulting quip."

  • In case you're curious, yes I was totally the playground patsy at The Dozens. – T.E.D. Aug 19 '14 at 17:57
  • Well, I think you might have something here, but this answer is far from definitive. Like you said, you've never heard "Oh, snap" until the 80's. That a good quip in a game of dozens is called a snap might be a coincidence. Without a source actually using or mentioning the phrase, this is speculative. On a different note, I've only ever seen white people say "Oh, snap" in regards to an insult, where a round of dozens might happen, but not formally engaged and certainly never had a name. – fredsbend Aug 19 '14 at 19:07
  • Also, the more I look into this the more I think the UK version of "Oh, snap, we have the same thing" developed independently and likely from the card game. – fredsbend Aug 19 '14 at 19:34
  • @fredsbend - I highly suspect that one is independent as well. I'd almost added a sentence as such to the answer (but its long enough already). – T.E.D. Aug 19 '14 at 20:10
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It is an exclamatory phrase which indicates surprise, misfortune, or insult.

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.

The Mysterious Origins of Oh Snap, Edward Champion

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    Great resource. However, the answerer is (also) expected to say something (so it can count for an "answer".) – Kris Aug 18 '14 at 6:31
  • Bart Simpson says it sometimes. – paulmorriss Aug 19 '14 at 16:24
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    Since I've tidied up the quoting, I'd like to put on record that I don't think quoting an entire blog article, even with a reasonable attribution, is Fair Use. – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '14 at 19:59
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    Wait...did you essentially give Josh61's answer (which is essentially a link) just expanded the text? – Mitch Aug 19 '14 at 20:03
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    You take your "surprise, misfortune or insult" analysis, expand on that perhaps with your own examples, and pick the relevant bits of the article as further corroboration. You might also include the British form of Jinx ("I did that too!") if you can find something. – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '14 at 20:58

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