Useful Scots word: snasters

By Betty Kirkpatrick
A DoughnutI was interested to read the article by our health correspondent on orthorexia. People suffering from this supposed eating disorder avoid all foods that are considered unhealthy and end up short of some valuable nutrients. This has nothing to do with Scots except that it reminded me of the Scots word snasters, decidedly unhealthy food.

As is the case with several Scots words, it is difficult to translate snasters. Something like confectionery or goodies might fill the bill, although, unlike these, snasters is usually used in a disapproving way. It refers to sugary, high-calorie things like cakes, pastries and sweets that may taste good, but rot the teeth and pile on the pounds. Snasters are now totally banned from school lunch boxes.

Snasters was a word commonly used by my father in my childhood, usually in warnings not to eat too many snasters or I would not be able to eat my tea. It was not a word that I encountered elsewhere and for years I assumed it was derived from a Gaelic word. Although my father was not actually a Gaelic speaker, there was a distinct influence in his speech because both his parents were Gaelic speakers.

When I finally located a written source for snasters, I discovered that it was not Gaelic in origin and, in fact, that its first spelling is not snasters, but snashters. I find this very difficult to say. It tends to come out as ‘shnashters’ and sounds as though I have ill-fitting teeth or have had a few too many. So I am sticking to snasters, which is an alternative spelling.

Snasters, or even more likely, snashters, sounds as though it is related to the Scots verb snash, which means to bite or snap. Snasters/snashters are likely to have Swedish, rather than Gaelic, connections. Swedish has snask sweets and snaska to suck sweets.

I am not acquainted with anyone else who uses the word snasters but I am sure that there must be someone out there who does.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

  • R Barclay

    I never encountered “snashter” among the rich source of words in the Shetland dialect I grew up with – where most are of Scandinavian origin, rather than Scottish (but may share similar roots) – but we had an elderly teacher for one year in primary school nicknamed “Jessie Snashie” which would have been apt from your derivation of snash from snap or bite. Her nickname wasnt contemporary – it went right back to my parents days at school (1930/40’s) – but she was still snashy when she taught us.

  • Gavin Greig

    My parents and grandparents warned of the dangers of overindulging in snashters. I still use the word.

  • Betty,

    I heard that “snashters” were related to another Scots word “snash” meaning verbal insolence or cheek. It appears this word comes, as many of our Scots words do, from the Low Countries and Friesland in particular; “snasje” meaning approximately the same thing.

    I also wonder what the etymology of the English “snack” is and whether it’s of a similar origin? Can anyone enlighten us?


    • The Oxford English Dictionary says “snack” (noun) derives from “snack” (verb) which in turn is, to quote (or rather, copypaste):

      Of doubtful origin: cf. MDu. or Flem. snacken to snap (of a dog), Norw. dial. snaka to snatch (of animals). The LG. and Du. snakken (G. dial. schnakken) to gasp, desire, etc., to talk or chatter, which agree in form, do not correspond in sense.

      Seems like there was a bit of a mix-up from the very beginning…

  • Jim-st

    My faither liked a guid snashter – wisnae sae keen oan whit he caw’d a “tupenny bugger-me-up”, though

  • James

    My granny said snastchers.

  • Angus Martin

    This word, which is always spoken with a disapproving tone, is still used in Campbeltown in the form ‘snashters’, and applies to sweets or trashy foods. It is one of the many Scots terms for which a ‘standard English’ one-word equivalent doesn’t appear to exist. At least I can’t think of one which carries quite the same measure of exactness.

  • RabC

    It’s new years day and my mother used the word snasters to describe wee picks to eat. Great to read your article to settle the argument about whether snasters was a real word.

  • Linda C

    My family always used snasters to mean “rubbish food” that did you no good at all. Snasters usually meant cheap sweet food; biscuits, sweets, cakes. It certainly wasn’t a sweet treat like a chocolate eclair or Frys Five Boy chocolate bar.

  • Sandra

    In a Burns poem one line comments on “to thole the Factor’s Snash” – I thought it could mean a sort of bullying with insolence or cheek , the Factor being the rent collector for the landlord