“Al Kholani was a squat man with a red-and-white kaffiyeh bundled at a jaunty angle atop his head. He had deep-set eyes, a hawk nose, and a snaggletooth that extended over his lower lip.”
Any guesses as to where that’s a quote from, and when it was written? And is there anything in it that particularly snags your eye?
The source is, first of all, non-fiction. Al Kholani is not a made-up person; he is a real resident of Wadi Dhahr, which is near Sanaa, in Yemen. The description of him comes from “Yemen: Days of Reckoning” (if you get the title from the first page of the article, or “Yemen’s Day of Reckoning,” if you get it from the table of contents), by Joshua Hammer, in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic.
I can’t speak for you, of course, but I can say what word snagged my eye: snaggletooth. It’s just a word you don’t often see. And it’s long. And has a double g, which (at least for me) has a greater-than-average association with plain or undignified or rakish words, and is part of a ggle, which smacks of boggle and juggle and giggle and such like, and is followed by a double o, which certainly doesn’t weaken the effect. It’s an undignified, impolite word, something you would not use to describe a person to their face.
Which makes it a bit of a surprise in National Geographic, which is a very thoughtful magazine. But you have to admit that it is the exact word you want to describe the jutting tooth, which is unavoidably salient on a person’s face – the description of Al Kholani is good enough that you almost feel you’ve seen a photograph of him. (The article does not include a photo of him. I imagine they would have spared the description if it did.)
A vowel can make quite a difference. Snuggle may not be dignified, but it certainly is comfortable and inviting. Sniggle and snoggle don’t exist in the lexicon, but they sound like they would refer to snickering and kissing, respectively, on the basis of their resemblance to other words. But snaggle? It sounds like snag, which is not more pleasant for its taste of nag, and which carries the sense of jutting out and catching.
Snag is indeed (as far as anyone can tell) at the root of the snaggle in snaggletooth(ed). The le is probably the usual frequentative suffix – signifying something done repeatedly. And we know snag – but did you know it was a noun before it was a verb? A snag is, first of all, a stump of a branch sticking off a tree, or a branch or stump sticking out of soil or water – in short, something that juts and that passing things can catch on. That catching got the verb snag derived from the noun. (Now we talk about a snag in one’s clothing, which is the effect caused by the verb caused by the original noun.)
So a snaggletooth is a tooth that sticks out like a snag. The noun snaggle-tooth has citations dating from 1820 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Does that seem suspiciously recent? The noun is actually derived from the adjective snaggletoothed (or snaggle-toothed, as the OED has it), which has a first citation from 1585.
One way or another, if you are snaggletoothed, if you have a snaggletooth in your puss (mouth, for those unfamiliar with that colloquialism), it’s generally viewed as unbecoming at best, and certainly not stylish or fun in a good way. And yet… there is Snagglepuss. That large pink bon-vivant feline from Hanna-Barbera (probably a panther, though people in the animations seem to take him for a lion – well, if he’s a mountain lion, he’s a kind of panther; also, he does not have crooked teeth). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch an episode of the cartoon. He’s not your ordinary cartoon creature. He’s much more urbane and witty, charming even (yes, there’s his famous turn of phrase: “[x] even”), and perfectly happy to live and let live except no one else seems to want to. The humour is on the level of Hollywood Squares. A bit more sophisticated than the usual for cartoons. Adult even.
And rather different from the image one gets from snaggletoothed. And yet there it is. Heavens to Murgatroyd.