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Fairly straightforward question. There are a lot of slang terms for drugs in On the Road, but I was still rather startled by "snakejuice"

"Man, do you imagine what it would be like if we found a jazzjoint in these swamps, with great big black fellas moanin guitar blues and drinking snakejuice and makin signs at us?"

Searching for it just turns up a lot of nonsense about diet supplements. What is Kerouac referring to here, and why does he associate it with these unpleasant racial stereotypes?

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    (1) When you're in a 1950s "jazzjoint", the only things you're drinking are whisky and beer. I promise you that snakejuice is not beer. (2) What in that sentence is racist?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 4:31
  • @ronjohn I didn't say it was racist: in fact I worded that carefully so as not to say it. I said it was an unpleasant stereotype, which it is, just like the white "okies" he derides later.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 10:28
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    "why does he associate it with these unpleasant racial stereotypes" Are you really asking this about reported speech in a novel that appeared in 1957? Wouldn't the absence of any racial slur be totally unrealistic?
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 12:02
  • @oerkelens no, I'm asking why snakjuice is associated with them. Now that I know it's whiskey the answer is obvious: but I didn't, and so I thought it might be interesting and/or relevant to the question.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 12:11
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    Snake-juice is corn liquor, raw whiskey if you will, or red-eye gin, and it bites like hell. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 17:40

4 Answers 4

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“Snake juice” is whisky:

snake juice, n. slang (chiefly Australian) whisky; also loosely, any alcoholic drink.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the OED says “chiefly Australian”, my searches on Google Books and the Internet Archive found the earliest uses in the USA. In particular, the following two citations antedate the OED’s earliest (1900) citation:

But its redeeming feature is Esquire May and his little shop around the corner. The ’Squire is an expounder of law, moral virtue and distilled snake juice, and altogether is a jolly fellow.

The Field, 27 November 1875, p. 266. Chicago.

“Thet’s the stuff, dog-gone me ef ’t ain’t,—the reg’lar snake-medicine, boys, an’ it was rale thoughtful uv yer to brung it. Dog-my-cats ef I ain’t afeard I shall be snake-bit to-day ef I don’t hist in some of thet ther snake-juice plum-quick. Here ’s to ye, boys; may yer never be snake-bit!”

Frederick A. Ober (1887). The Knockabout Club in the Everglades, p. 185. Boston: Estes and Lauriat.

Eric Partridge suggested that “snake juice” might have been derived from earlier phrases linking alcoholic delirium with snakes:

snake-juice. Whiskey: Australian: from ca. 1890. C. J. Dennis. Ex see snakes.

see snakes. To have delirium tremens: U.S. anglicised as coll. ca. 1900. Earlier form: have or have got snakes in one’s boots remained U.S.

Eric Partridge (1923). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 5th edition, p. 791. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

A couple of early appearances of these phrases:

Dick Weldon died of delirium tremens (or snakes in his boots).

The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 1 October 1872, p. 631. London.

“He may also have delirium tremens, which means delirium with trembling of the limbs. Another name for this disease is mania à potu, or drinking mania, which you just now called ‘jim-jams.’ There are other popular names for it, such as ‘D.T.,’ ‘del. trem.,’ ‘seeing snakes,’ and ‘got ’em.’”

Thomas Wallace Knox (1890). Teetotaler Dick: His Adventures, Temptations and Triumphs, p. 119. New York: Ward & Drummond.

As for Kerouac’s use of “snakejuice” in On the Road, the word may have been adopted as an African-American dialect term, like “jazz” and “blues” (though I was unable to find any evidence of this), or perhaps the word was associated with remote or rural dialects, that the characters might have expected to hear in the swamps of east Texas. But most likely is that the swamps themselves suggested the snakes, which suggested the juice:

We were surrounded by a great forest of viny trees in which we could almost hear the slither of a million copperheads.

Jack Kerouac (1957). On the Road, p. 131. New York: New American Library.

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  • I'd suggest that "snakejuice" (at least in the US) implies bootleg (illegally distilled) whiskey (American spelling) of low quality but high alcohol content, i.e. moonshine.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 16:11
  • A 2011 episode of Parks and Recreation, a US TV comedy, featured a fictitious high-alcohol, highly intoxicating beverage called "Snake Juice". I suspect that the name probably plays on these connotations. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 20:44
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According to by The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: J-Z edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor (Routledge, 2006), snakejuice refers to

strong liquor, especially of rough quality.

The dictionary gives Australia as the place where the term was first used, with the earliest recorded occurrence dating from 1890. But the meaning makes sense in the quote from Kerouac.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, edited by John Ayto and John Simpson (2010), gives the following meaning:

Alcoholic liquor, esp. inferior whisky.

This dictionary says the term is "mainly Australian" and also gives 1890 as the earliest date.

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In many languages distilled spirits such as vodka have names such as "burning water" (Spanish) or "burning wine" (Scandinavian), the root of the English or German "brandy". Even the term "eau-de-vie" (French) and "spirit" denotes something very powerful. No doubt "snake juice" is a hyperbolic term for very strong liquor, suggests something evil or tempting (Biblical reference), and the term suits the setting.

Kerouac lived in a different time and place, undoubtedly "unpleasant racial stereotypes" were the norm then, but this need not be intentional here. "On the Road" is not an anthropological study, it contains a series of vignettes, sketches, impressions that reveal the excitement of being young and adventurous. Here the characters are entertaining the idea of being tourists, risking becoming unwelcome outsiders, and are amused by the potential reception upon "crashing the party".

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    We used to call whisky "snake bite." As we played poker, someone would leap up in mock fear announcing that he though he'd seen a snake under the table. The only reasonable course of action was for everyone to have a shot of the snake bite cure. So this might be an alternative etymology. "Snake juice" might be thought to be a cure for snake bite. I have only my anecdotal evidence for this.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 13:34
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    Nice to see a chemist here! Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 15:46
  • @user1271772 you blew my cover. But I am a chemist who has read the book. And has had a sip of this and that.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 15:56
  • What "unpleasant racial stereotypes" are in OP's quote?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 4:32
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    I also wonder about “making signs”. What signs? For the past 40 years, such a phrase has homosexual overtones, and I don’t know if that’s valid in the 1950s.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 21:23
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Snakejuice, as mentioned by other answers, refers to whiskey. Whiskey and snakes are linked in this quote by W.C. Fields:

Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake.

Fields told this joke in the 1930s, 20 years before Kerouac wrote On the road. Still, the etymology described in other answers might be more probable.

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