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snakes


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Proverbial allusions to the snake focus on its venomous bite as representing a lurking danger; it is a type of deceit and treachery, as with reference to the fable by Aesop, in which the man who had warmed a chilled snake in his own bosom was bitten for his pains. The word is recorded from Old English (in form snaka) and is of Germanic origin.

Snakes are the emblems of St Patrick, who was said to have banished them from Ireland.

snake charmer an entertainer who appears to make snakes move by playing music, although the snake is in fact following the movement of the player's instrument rather than the sound of the music. The image is of longstanding, as in the biblical reference in Psalm 58:4–5.

snake in the grass a treacherous or deceitful person. The expression comes originally from Virgil's Eclogues.

snake-oil a term for a substance with no real medicinal value sold as a remedy for all diseases.

snakepit a pit containing poisonous snakes; in early legends, used as a means of execution, as in the story of Gunnar, who is said to have been put to death in this way by Atli.In the 20th century, the term has been used for a scene of vicious behaviour or ruthless competition, and specifically (after the title of a novel (1947) by M. J. Ward), a mental hospital.

snakes and ladders a children's game in which players move counters along a board, gaining an advantage by moving up pictures of ladders or a disadvantage by moving down pictures of snakes; the game was put on the market in the early part of the 20th century.

snakes in Iceland an allusive phrase referring to something posited only to be dismissed as non-existent; the reference is to Dr Johnson's comment on Horrebow's Natural History of Iceland (1758), to the effect that ‘he could repeat a complete chapter…the whole of which was exactly thus:—“.Chap. lxxii. Concerning Snakes. There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island”.’

Subjects: Arts and Humanities — Zoology and Animal Sciences.


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