Over the weekend I found a pair of eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) basking on leaves, enjoying a little global warming in February. But while I was reading up on snake basking and hibernacula (as one does), I discovered that a large fraction of articles refer to them as garden, gardener, garder, and guarder snakes, alternative spellings that Wikipedia implies, wrongly, are fine (I’ve made the edit to correct that, though). So I thought I’d make a post about the etymology of garter snakes as a public service announcement, just in case somebody might stumble onto my page and actually care.
Garter snakes are named after garters, pieces of fabric that were fastened right below one’s knee (the part of the body once known as the garet, which means “bend in the knee”) to keep stockings from falling down. Today a garter is just an alluring, frilly satin thing worn for weddings or proms, but back in early Europe they were critical parts of both male and female dress. Here’s a photograph of one in action (borrowed from a great post on the topic):
And here is King George III with garters. Garters were sometimes embroidered or otherwise decorated to have had diamond patterns and lines that, by chance, resembled the coloration of snakes (like this one). So it’s not surprising that somebody eventually referred to a particular kind of snake as a “garter” snake. And the name stuck.
I was curious when this happened, so I checked the Online Etymology Dictionary, and it said 1775, in the United States. I think that’s incorrect … I found an earlier reference (1773) in England: “A descriptive catalogue of the rarities in Mr. G.’s Museum at Lichfield.” I’m sure the first usage “garter snake” goes back even further, too, if you had access to a good database letters and newspaper articles from the time.
What’s curious about the timing is that hundreds of online articles and books claim that sirtalis (the species name) means “like a garter“. If that was true, though, you’d think the earliest mention of “garter snake” would have been soon after 1758, when Linnaeus first published his description of the species using sirtalis. So, curious, I looked the word up in a Latin dictionary … and it’s not there. Like many of words Linnaeus used in his binomials, it’s made up and we can only guess at what he was trying to convey. I eventually found somebody who made that guess, Kraig Adler, who theorized that the word might be a combination of siro (Greek for cord, rope, or string) and talis (Latin for such, the like), and thus might mean “ropelike”. So … when people claim that sirtalis means “like a garter”, they are merely perpetuating an incorrect assumption. I’m not sure who started it, but Robert Parker Hodge made the claim as early as 1976 in Amphibians and reptiles in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. People like to repeat this claim, I suspect, because it seems to easily explain the source of the common name. Guys, in particular, might be mystified by garters and what they used to look like.
By the way, Linnaeus based his description on a snake collected in Pennsylvania (that’s where I am). Upon closer scrutiny by people who know snakes, it seems likely the snake he was looking at wasn’t even a garter snake. If you want the gruesome details, they are in Klauber 1948.
Anyway, that’s my 2 cents on garter snake etymology. Happy to be corrected on any of the details above.
If you need a pair of snake-like garters to wear to ye olde Renaissance Faire, here you go. Would also be appropriate for herpetology conferences, I’d wager.