Snitch Family History

Origins of Family Name Snitch
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Report Compiled by "Nameswell Surname Research", on the Origins of the
family name SNITCH

Area of Origin

Snitch is a very rare name, occurring only 43 times in the 1881 census of Great Britain.

The distribution map, based on actual numbers in 1881, shows the surname was found mainly in Huntingdonshire (21), Yorkshire (6) and Middlesex (10).  

An analysis by Poor Law Unions shows that distribution is not uniform across these counties, but is concentrated in particular parishes. Most people with the name lived to the immediate north and south of Huntingdon, in Peterborough and St Neots. In Middlesex the name was found mainly in Pancras and Islington, whilst in Yorkshire it only occurred in Sculcoates, suggesting a family group.  

Surnames tend to predominate in the area in which they arose. London in particular attracted migrants from all over the country, and most surnames show an area of concentration in the capital. This rarely signifies that the surname has originated in that area. 

A comparison with a distribution map based on occurrence per 100,000 people, shows the surname has a marked concentration in Huntingdonshire, and St Neots in particular. (This area has now been amalgamated into Cambridgeshire.) 

It is therefore probable that the name originated in this region. However, as it is such a rare name, the migration of a single person could distort the pattern of distribution, and it is unwise to come to firm conclusions without further evidence.  

The distribution of the name in 1881 is consistent with early parish records, which lists Snitch, in variant spellings, in Blunham, Sandy and Potton from the late16th century. These villages lie to the east of Bedford, near the Huntingdonshire border. 

The surname therefore occurred in north Bedfordshire at an early date, and has persistent there for centuries. 

Type of name

Surnames tend to derive from place names, occupational or descriptive terms, and personal names. The surname Snitch gives no immediate clues about which type of name it is.  

To determine whether the surname is likely to have originated from an English word, it is helpful to analyse the sounds, which make up the name, and to discover whether these were found in Old English, during the time in which surnames began to form, and how these sounds may have developed. 

Phonetic Analysis

The name Snitch is a single syllable word, with a cluster ‘sn’ in initial position, a simple vowel, and the spelling ‘tch’ in final position, which is pronounced ‘ch’.

The cluster ‘sn’ is a fairly common cluster found in initial position in Old English. It is likely to be very stable, unlikely to change over time.

The ‘i’ sound has also been fairly stable, although it was often spelled ‘y’ after nasals (m, n) in Old English. It is most similar to the long vowel pronounced ‘ee’.

‘Ch’ is a complex sound, and is actually made up of two separate English sounds – ‘t’ and ‘sh’. The sound was often written ‘c’ in Old English, eg. ‘ditch’ was written as ‘dic’. After the ‘i’ sound it was often pronounced as ‘k’. Snitch may therefore theoretically be found in early records as Snic, Snik, Snyc or Snyk.

In the South and Midlands the sound ‘l’ occurring before or after ‘ch’ was lost. Therefore a modern word such as Snitch may once have been Snil(t)ch or Sni(t)chel.

Other changes which occurred to surnames generally include vowel changes and consonant changes. The most likely consonant change that may have occurred in the name Snitch is a change to Snidge, or even Snish or Smitch. A word ending in ‘dg’ may have earlier forms ending in ‘d’, eg. Snid. Combine this with a vowel change and you may arrive at Sneed or Sneesh. The surname has many possible variants.

In addition, surnames sometimes loose syllables, so Snitch may once have had a second syllable. The lost syllable is always a weaker syllable, with less stress.

It is also possible that there has been a vowel between the initial ‘s’ and the ‘n’, eg. Sinitch.

Similar simplification processes may have occurred if the name has a foreign origin. An example is Sintezenick, a surname occurring once in Berkshire in 1881, which could have been subjected to lost syllables and sound reorganisation, to make it appear more English.

Whilst some of these changes are likely, eg. ‘tch’ to ‘c’, others are theoretical and act only as a guide in searching for the surname in early records.

The Meaning of the Name

The following works of reference were searched for Snitch, or any similar spellings:

The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, Basil Cottle, 1978.
A Dictionary of English Surnames, Reaney and Wilson, 1997.
George Redmonds, Surnames and Genealogy, 2002.
R.A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames, 1990.
David Hey, Family Names and Family History, 2000.
C. Rogers, The Surname Detective, 1995.
Middle English Occupational Terms, Bertil Thuresson, 1950.
Middle English Local Surnames, Mattias T Lofvenberg, 1942.

There was no reference to the name in these books.

H.B. Guppy, The Homes of Family Names, 1890, studied localities in which family names predominated, in an attempt to identify the ‘homes’ of our surnames. He concentrated on the names of farmers, as he believed they were ‘the most stay-at-home class of the county’.

There was no reference to the name in this book, but as it restricted to a small part of the population, and the surname is so rare, this lack of evidence at least tells us that the name Snitch was not a common farming name by the end of the 19th century.

Old English By-names, Gosta Tengvik, 1938, mentions the by-name Snoch, recorded in the Domesday Book of 1066. The uthor believed this name derived from the dialectal word snook, meaning a projecting piece of land.  Snook has since developed as a modern surname, and is found mainly in Wiltshire. The name appears to have many similarities to Snitch, but probably has a different origin.

The following were searched for Old English or Norse personal names:

Uncompounded Personal Names in Old English by Mats Redin, 1919, includes the name Snocca, linked to snook, and Snyda, from Old English snud, meaning speed.
Scandinavian Personal Names in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire by Gillian Fellowes Jensen, 1968, makes no references to any names similar to Snitch.
Bartholomew’s Survey Gazetteer of the British Isles, 1921 includes no places called Snitch, but does include the following places, with similar names:

Snatchwood, hamlet, Monmouthshire.
Sneachill, locality, Worcestershire, 4 miles east of Worcester.
Snead, parish, Montgomeryshire.
Snead Common, locality, Worcestershire.
Snead’s Green, hamlet, Worcestershire.
Sneath Common, locality, Norfolk.

The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place Names, Victor Watts, 2004, mentions that the first part of the name Sneachill derives from an obscure Old English personal name, which may have been Sneti or Snat.

It is very possible that the place name Sneachill could have given rise to a surname Sneach, or Snitch, as many names lost final syllables over time. Sneachill is situated in Worcestershire, many miles from Bedfordshire, so the geographical evidence casts doubt on this theory. Nevertheless, long distance migration, although uncommon, has occurred throughout history, and this idea cannot be disproved with the evidence currently available.

If the surname did originate from the place name Sneachill, it would have developed long after the place name was established, and therefore there is no indication of a genetic link to the individual named Sneti or Snat.

The English Dialect Dictionary, ed. Joseph Wright, 1905, mentions several words which are of interest, and may be relevant to the surname Snitch, and will therefore be considered separately:

English Dialectal words of possible relevance to the surname Snitch

Sniche. Adjective, Dorset, also written Snyche, pronounced Snitch.   Eager, ready to please, stingy, grasping.
Thomas Hardy, Trumpet Major, 1880, ‘He’s a regular sniche one’.
Snichen, Snicher. See Sneeshing, Snicker.

Snichter, Snixter. To sniff, snuffle.

Paton, Castlebraes, 1898, ‘Tae be sneevilin an’ snichterin’ an’ befulin’ yersel’ like that’.
Snick. Found in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Surrey and Somerset. Also spelled Snik, Sneck.
to cut sharply, to cut into, to make incisions, to cut off.
To clip a sheep in uneven ridges (Cumbria).
To castrate. Lincolnshire spelled as Snitch.
To give a quick, sudden blow, to strike smartly.
To turn aside.
Of a gun, to miss or hang fire.
To close, fill up, to stop an incision or gap.
To contrive opportunely, to do anything in the ‘nick’ of time.
To drink up, to finish up.
To fail in an enterprise.
To speak sharply to.
The act of cutting, eg. ‘a snick of the shears’.
A slight cut or incision.
A trifle in distance or height.
A sudden sharp noise.
A portion of a wall built with single stones, or stones which go from side to side.

Snik. Pronounced ‘snik’ or ‘snek’, to sneak, to pilfer, to grab. Found in Lincolnshire as snik or snitch, to tie up.
Snicker. Also found as Sneeker, Snicher.
to laugh in a suppressed manner, same as nigger, snigger.
To crop, eat.
A suppressed laugh, a giggle.
The low noise made by a mare to call her foal.
To snare, same as Snickle.

Lincolnshire, of weather, cold, cutting, same as Snithe.
A small piece.
A greedy person.
To hang upon a person, to curry favour.

Other dialect words similar to Snitch include Snickup (a hiccup), Snickler and Snicky.

Given the changes in English sounds mentioned above, it is also interesting to note the variations listed for words beginning with ‘sm’:
Smeech. Pronounced Smitch. Form of smeek.
Smitch. Same as Smeech. Also written Smich.
Smeeche. Same as Smeede.

These acts as further clues to possible variations of Snitch, eg. Sneech, Sneek, Snich, Sneed.

The term ‘snitch’ was evidently a common dialectal term, found in many parts of the country, with a variety of meanings, and shades of meaning. It is very possible that it could have given rise to a surname.

The reference to castration in the dictionary may indicate that the name is synonymous with the surname Weatherhead, from Wetherherd. This surname is found mainly in Yorkshire, and surrounding counties, but also in Bedfordshire. Wethers were castrated rams, and the term indicates a specialist shepherd.

The surname Snitch is first recorded in Bedfordshire in 1598, with the variant Sneech recorded the same area.

How and When the Name Developed

The development of hereditary names was slow, and varied according to the type of name, and the region in which it developed

A thousand years ago, in Anglo Saxon times, there were no hereditary names. People lived in small, rural communities and spoke a language now called Old English. Names were derived from descriptive words, often bestowing worthy attributes or great fortune on the individual. Snyda is a good example of Anglo Saxon naming preferences, and meant ‘speed’ or ‘quick’.

Each name was unique within the community, and therefore everyone needed just one name.

The Norman Conquest, of 1066, brought many changes.  Some French barons brought with them the new fashion of using the name of their estate as a second name, as a mark of their inheritance, and the idea was quickly adopted by the aristocracy throughout the country.  At first this trend did not affect the local population.

A small number of British names may therefore be traced back to the aristocracy of the 11th and 12th centuries, but most families had no hereditary names at this stage.

New first names were also introduced by the Normans. A relatively small number of names such as John, William, Richard, Alice and Margaret became very popular, and slowly replaced the Anglo Saxon names. By 1300 most Old English names were no longer in use in the British Isles.

Names were no longer unique, and many people acquired a second name, known as a by-name, to distinguish them from other people with the same name, eg. Eduardus Snoch of 1066. These names were not at first passed on to successive generations.

Hereditary surnames developed from by-names from the 12th century, amongst families who were known by the name of their estates and farms. These are known as locative names, and are the oldest type of surname in the British Isles. 

Peasants, moving to a new farm, village or town in search of work, often acquired the name of their previous place of residence, eg. Sneachill. Others acquired names which described the position of their cottage, eg. Snick for someone who lived near a distinctive wall. Many of these types of name began to be adopted as hereditary surnames from 1150, and during the following century surnames based on occupation and nicknames also became common.

Surnames were also derived from personal names, but by then most Anglo Saxon names had fallen from use, and it was the names introduced by the Normans that influenced the development of this type of surname.
Surnames were particularly popular in the towns, where the need for identification was greater, and the trend spread west and north, and to rural areas.

Most families in rural Bedfordshire  probably acquired a hereditary surname between the late 13th and mid 14th century. However, the process was slow and uneven, and it was not until the early 16th century that everyone had a hereditary name in this area.

The Social Class of your Earliest Named Ancestor

When hereditary names were first acquired, there was a marked difference in the types of surname adopted by different social classes.

Surnames based on places, known as locative names, were initially held by the aristocracy and wealthy families, and later by small landowners and farmers. Poor peasants (serfs), many of who were bound to a manor, and were not free to leave, rarely had locative names. This class difference subsided in the south from the 13th century.

Surnames based on features of the landscape and occupations were held by free and unfree tenants of the manor, who farmed their own land, and tradesmen.

Surnames based on nicknames or personal names were adopted by farming tenants, serfs and less affluent town dwellers. Some serfs also had occupational names, some of them indicating skilled trades.

As the origin of the surname Snitch is obscure, it is difficult to determine its original social class. If it derived from Sneachill is may signify a tradesman or tenant, free to move in search of a higher standard of living. If the name originated from a dialectal term in Bedfordshire, it is most likely to have been adopted as a surname by a tenant or serf.

Are all the People with your Name Related?

As Snitch is such a rare name, localised to one part of the country, it is highly likely that it arose from a single individual.

Most people with the surname, and its recognised variants, will therefore be related, barring illegitimacy and adoption

Recognised Variants

The exact spelling of surnames was not established until the end of the 19th century, with the introduction of compulsory state education. Spelling variations were common – there was often no set way to spell a name, and no concept of a spelling mistake. 

Other spellings of Snitch, occurring in the same geographical area, or in the same family, include Snich(e) 1575, Snytch 1602 and Snetch 1821, all in Bedfordshire, and Sneech 1760, just over the county border in Huntingdonshire.

Possible Variants

There are many possible variants of Snitch. It is likely that it developed from an English dialectal word, and it would have been subject to the same sound changes as all other English words over the centuries.

The Dialectal Dictionary gives evidence that the exact spelling and pronunciation of words was variable across counties.

Possible variants are indicated by the phonetic analysis and dialectal vocabulary.

Tracing your Family Name Back Further in Time

Try and go further back with your family by looking for the surname in different guises, along the lines suggested. At this stage it is preferable to use the original records rather than indexes. Look out for all possible versions of your name in north Bedfordshire, but also in the counties between Bedfordshire and Worcestershire, particularly Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, and the northern parts of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Note that individuals could be known by different versions of their name, or even two very different names, as surnames were developing, eg. John Snitch alias Brown. The inclusion of ‘de’ or ‘atte’ before a name indicates it is a place name, eg. John de Snitchill, although the use of such prepositions had largely died out by 1400.

It may be helpful to investigate further the use of dialect in Bedfordshire. The English Dialect Dictionary does give a bibliography, and can be consulted in large reference libraries. There may also be references published more recently which could give further information on the use of the term ‘snitch’ in the Bedfordshire area.


The surname Snitch was established in north Bedfordshire area by the 16th century.

Whilst there is a small possibility that the name originated from Sneachill in Worcestershire, or that it has been simplified from a foreign source, it is much more likely that it derived from a dialectal term, denoting a personal characteristic, an occupation, or a reference to the landscape. It may have therefore been established in Bedfordshire for many generations before John Snich was baptised in 1575 in Blunham, and may have been used as a hereditary surname for at least two hundred years before this date.

The further back you get with your family line, the easier it will be to interpret the origin of the name.


 © 2018 Pete Snitch, York, UK