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1) Snakes crawl.

According to Longman and Collins dictionary crawl means: "to move slowly, either by dragging the body along the ground or on the hands and knees" so in my point of view it's OK to say snakes crawl, but in one of the previous questions which was posted here, A comparison between "Creep", "Crawl" and "slither", it was said that it sounds unnatural if we use the verb crawl for snakes and slither can be used alternatively. I was wondering wether this usage of crawl is really unnatural among both British people and Americans because while I was searching I've just come across two songs《Snakes Crawl》 by Bush Tetras and 《Snakes Crawl at night》by Charley Pride which led me in to confusion.

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    This is, unfortunately, one instance where you’re better off believing Bush Tetras than an accepted answer on our Stack Exchange. Thanks for asking the question and giving the community a second chance to set the record straight. – J.R. Dec 3 '17 at 9:14
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    tbh snakes crawling does sound a bit strange to me. but genesis 3.14 is a famous usage of this (in at least some versions of the bible) – Martin Smith Dec 3 '17 at 16:54
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    Shakespeare uses it: "...do thy best. To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast" (A Midsummer Night's Dream) Slithering wouldn't fall nearly so neatly from the tongue. – jamesqf Dec 3 '17 at 19:09
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    Crawl perhaps implies the use of some arms/legs/appendage, e.g., "..they'd have me crawling on all fours..", however, a snake has none, and so, this could possibly be why it is difficult for some people to accept the use of "crawl" to describe snake behavior. – user30379 Dec 3 '17 at 21:17
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    @MartinSmith: Yes - quite a few versions in fact :-) – psmears Dec 4 '17 at 11:42
28

I disagree with the poster's statement that "crawl sounds very strange to the native speaker." It's the term I'd be most likely to use, unless I wanted a bit of dramatic effect. In that case I'd use "slither."

Here's an ngram comparison of all three. As you can see, "the snake crept" is the most common in the 19th century, "the snake crawled" is the most common from the early 20th century until about 1980, and "the snake slithered" is now about twice as common as "the snake crawled."

  • And there are similar results when we switch to the indefinite article. – J.R. Dec 3 '17 at 9:04
  • @J.R. We're getting into Q.E.D. territory, here. :) Thanks for the enhancement! – BobRodes Dec 3 '17 at 20:38
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    "Crawl" just strongly implies "uses arms and legs" to me. (I'm old enough to have read a lot of pre-1980 books, but apparently none with snakes!!!) – RonJohn Dec 3 '17 at 23:37
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    @J.R. of course, The Site Which Should Not Be Named calls it the Opening Scroll. If I'd never heard the SW opening scroll called a crawl, I'd definitely call it a scroll. (In fact, I still do.) – RonJohn Dec 4 '17 at 1:45
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    @RonJohn - Just because scroll is a synonym doesn’t mean crawl is wrong. In any event, you might find this ngram interesting – snails, worms, and trains – oh, my! – J.R. Dec 4 '17 at 8:48
18

You most certainly can say that a snake crawls:

crawl verb

1b: to move with the body close to or on the ground.

  • The soldiers crawled forward on their bellies.
  • The snake crawled into its hole.

Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary


Apparently, you don't need legs to crawl:

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  • Poetry often uses metaphor, so it's not necessarily a good example. Also, definition #3 at your link is "to move slowly", which is more likely the sense used in the poem. – Barmar Dec 5 '17 at 10:11
4

I'm no linguist, but certain verbs are commonly used with certain nouns. Slither is a verb that is most commonly applied to snakes, thus its seems natural to say slither.

Of course there are many different verbs for movement, some with additional meaning:

-The snake meandered back to its hole. (Just kinda wandered in that direction until it reached home; no urgency)

-The snake darted back to its hole. (Took a direct path; sense of urgency) etc.

It is almost always OK to add any verb to any noun as long as your sentence is clear.

Mountains can flow (across the skyline).

Fish can fly (through the water at tremendous speeds).

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    It may seem natural to say slither, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnatural to say crawl. – J.R. Dec 3 '17 at 18:33
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    I agree, I guess I should have read the question more carefully :) – AncientElevator9 Dec 3 '17 at 18:51
1

Thinking about it, I'm in the snakes don't crawl camp.

Remember meanings of words shift over the years, so any past results don't necessarily apply present; you need a continuous line of examples. [Counterexample: "Stink" used to mean "(give off) smell" but is now since long strictly for bad smells; similarly "smell" is not neutral by now ("something smells here" is negative, you're not thinking "ah, like lemon house cleaner, or mown grass, or something a priori neutral)]. Specifically poetic usage cannot be used as an argument; so you need a line of normal, non-poetic prose usage examples. And "crawling seas" rather clearly suggests an amorphous mass undirected by a head having grasping hands, so it's a bad/counter argument.

For present usage, I'd hazard (unsourced) that when using the verb "crawl" we get hands/legs in mind, from any "creepy crawlies" (=any relatively small non-fluffy animal that gives you goosebumps; person-dependent; might contain snakes as it's an undefined term that appears in e.g. kids' animal programs and they'll fit in anything they have on hand), to "front crawl" in swimming (which is a "belly crawl" if you imagine the water being mud, like on an assault course, and your legs became disabled; sorry, time of the year, still thinking of Flanders' Fields).

Most sensible is in general to look at etymology but that seems unclear. If it's related to the cited words, then fingered hands/feet are very much implied. [Dutch kruipen seems cognate to creep to me, and it's what rug rats do before toddling; dutch krabbelen is what pets scratching at doors to be let through do, etc.] That's what makes it a good question.

Also, note several-times cited dictionary definition "crawl verb. 1b: to move with the body close to or on the ground." does not clearly apply to snakes: The propelling force is in hands/feet! (A sidewinder snake propels itself "close to the ground" but it's definitely not crawling.) This definition is writing from the "normal" viewpoint of a body being well off the ground, so "crawling" is "with the body close or even on the ground".

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Saying that snakes crawl isn't wrong, but it wouldn't generally sound right to me. Following are words I might consider for describing the motion of a snake

  • slither
  • creep
  • glide
  • swarm
  • crawl
  • move

Move is very unspecific, but it still fits. Swarm & crawl are more likely to be confusing because they strike me as less associated with snakes, while also less general than move. I'd probably say a snake slithers, creeps or moves in most contexts.

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The most common verb is "slither".

However, a lot of books and sources use the verbs "crawl" and "creep"; both refer to the rectilinear method.

The movement of some specific snakes is called "sidewinding":

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