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"Great snakes!": Where does the expression come from?

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#1 · Posted: 12 Apr 2005 06:04
Where did Tintin's "Great snakes!" exclaimation come from? Is it a direct translation for something in French or something?

(Sorry if this has been discussed before, but I looked all over and didn't succeed in finding an answer...)
UK Correspondent
#2 · Posted: 12 Apr 2005 09:23
In French Tintin says either "Sapristi !" or "Mon Dieu !", which was changed presumably because of cultural differences between English and French (saying "My God" in English doesn't tend to be considered a genuine request for help or a meaningful excalamtion, it's just seen a throw-away idiom). I believe "Great snakes" is an American phrase, although I don't know of the origin.
#3 · Posted: 12 Apr 2005 10:01
I think you’d also have to take into account that the exclamation of “My God!” would have been seen as too strong an exclamation for a children’s book in the Fifties (I still would be uncomfortable with it myself).

“Great snakes!” to me seems like one of those made up expressions used in books and on TV, which stand in for “swearing” - “Fossilised fish-hooks!” in the Jennings books, and “Naff off!” on Porridge. It may be American in origin, or it may just have come out of the head of MT&LL-C (my guess would be MT!), but it is there to be totally-inoffensive mild-offensiveness, if I may contradict terms…!
#4 · Posted: 12 Apr 2005 18:49
... since you can't really have a good, upright Boy Scout like our hero blaspheming. Not the best role model for the kids!

Archie, however, can say anything he likes without being doctored.

(Did anyone else find that 'clysopump' story in Tintin: The Companion hilarious? Poor Herge was properly hoodwinked!)
#5 · Posted: 23 Mar 2010 16:37
Sorry to dredge up an old thread like this but…

I just bought a second-hand copy of a book of reprinted British comic-strips, The Giant Holiday Adventure Comic Album - (“288 pages of great holiday reading!” the cover tells me), a companion to another volume I already have (The Giant Holiday Fantasy Comic Album), both published by Hawk in the late Eighties.

Anyway, one of the strips collected in it is a Dick Barton story (Dick Barton being a very popular character in several media of days-gone-by), originally published (I find from noodling about on Google for a while) in Super Detective Library, dating from 1953, and written by one A.W. Henderson, called Dick Barton Finds the City Under the Sea.

In it, Dick Barton, Special Agent, and his trusty side-kick have encountered escaped Nazi genius and war-criminal Karl Zimmerman in his secret under-sea complex, who uses hypnosis to try and take over their minds. Barton is (of course!) immune to the control, but as they flee the bad guys, his companion reacts to a planted suggestion and tries to kill him, at which point he exclaims: “Great snakes! He really is under the ’fluence!”

So there is at least one example of it in use before the Tintin books were translated by Methuen. It also makes me wonder if Dick Barton, Special Agent, which as well as being a comic strip also was a wildly successful radio serial of that era, and subject of several films, might have been a source of the expression?

Oh, and of course (and purely coincidentally), the name of Barton’s side-kick and ally, who was hypnotized here? None other than Snowy…
#6 · Posted: 23 Mar 2010 22:24
Interesting! :D I suspect the English translators might have read those comics before working on Tintin. Not saying that's a bad thing, they might have just gotten some ideas from it ^^
Harrock n roll
#7 · Posted: 23 Mar 2010 22:29
So there is at least one example of it in use before the Tintin books were translated by Methuen

Well found, jock!

I'd always presumed that it was made up by Michael Turner especially for the Tintin books. It has certainly become strongly associated with Tintin; think of the amount of articles on Tintin that use the phrase.

Will have to look out for a copy of the radio series to see if it is used there.
#8 · Posted: 23 Mar 2010 23:02
I suspect the English translators might have read those comics before working on Tintin.

Given its huge success - mainly on the radio it has to be said - they would most certainly have been aware of Dick Barton; that they read the comic I wouldn't be so sure of - but we simply don't know!
Harrock n roll:
Will have to look out for a copy of the radio series to see if it is used there.

Sadly I don't think that there are any original radio episodes left. The first story from 1946 was re-made in 1977, and even that was thought lost until it was found in an off-air recording, which has been restored and re-broadcast on Radio7.
The BBC have also issued an audiobook reading of one of the Dick Barton novels, so the phrase might be there if anyone has listened to them.
cigars of the beeper
#9 · Posted: 24 Mar 2010 15:30
If "great snakes" is an Americanism, it's not one that I've ever heard anyone (except Tintin and Tintin fans) say. Perhaps it was said once, but I don't know.
#10 · Posted: 30 Mar 2010 12:28
cigars of the beeper:
Perhaps it was said once, but I don't know.

Every day we learn something new, eh...? ;-)

An even older use of "Great snakes!" can be found in the caption of the cartoon shown here.
It's an illustration to an article from The Kia Ora Coo-ee of 15th July, 1918, a magazine or newsletter for ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers in the Middle East.

So it could be an antipodean expression, re-imported to the U.K. in the course of the First or Second World War, if it didn't have its own currency here anyway.

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