Appalachian Dialect

Snake Doctor – Snake Feeder

Snake Doctor

One day last week one of the girls spotted this dragonfly on the new wheel chair ramp The Deer Hunter built for Pap. It really stood out on the new wood. The position of the stamp makes it look as if it’s part of the wing design.

In many parts of Appalachia dragonflies are called snake doctors or snake feeders. Although I’ve read the terms in books-I’ve never heard anyone use them that I can remember.

snake doctor, snake feeder noun A dragonfly.
1936 LAMSAS snake feeder (Madison Co NC, Swain Co NC). 1937 Haun Cocke Co 5 If a snake feeder flies toward him, he will be killed by an animal within the next three months unless he kills the snake feeder. 1958 Newton Dialect Vocab snake feeder = common term for a dragon fly in East Tenn mountains, used by 27 of 36 speakers. 1966-68 DARE snake feeder (Brasstown NC, Burnsville NC, Cherokee NC, Spruce Pine NC, Galtinburg NC). 1983 Pederson East TN Folk Speech 127 snake doctor (Blount Co TN.)

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

Are you familiar with the snake doctor or the snake feeder usage?


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  • Reply
    September 4, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    Growing up in the 60’s my grandparents had a farm in central Missouri with a fishing lake. Snake feeders was what grandpa called the larger spieces of dragonfly. He always warned that when you saw several flitting about near the water’s edge there was likely a water moccasin or one’s nest in the vicinity. Water moccasins were pretty common in the area as were the snake feeders so there may be something to the connection between the two.

  • Reply
    Dennis M Morgan
    July 24, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    Where I grew up in Lancaster County, South Carolina we had snake doctors. But the term snake doctor pertained to the smaller damselflies not to dragon flies. The snake doctor would fly around and if there was a sick snake (especially a water moccasin) the snake doctor would “doctor” on the snake to make it better. There was a creek near where I lived and when I went there and saw a snake doctor I knew a snake was near by! Thanks for taking me back to my childhood. I don’t know if snake doctors are still tending to snakes or not. I hope they are. Dennis Morgan

  • Reply
    April 25, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks Tipper! My mom told me about the term Snakefeeder and I had not ever heard that one before.

  • Reply
    L.B. Sandy Rock MD
    January 28, 2021 at 12:12 am

    Snike Fieder
    It was a fairly slow summer afternoon, and Geraldine came around to the doctor’s call room where I rested whenever there was a break in the action saying, “Well Doctor, c’mon now…you need to see this fella in Room 2.” Something about the way she said that made me a bit suspicious; I got up, threw my scope around my neck, and headed across the hall. I tapped on the door and entered. “Hi, there,” I said to the thin, young man sitting shirtless on the exam table, “what brings you in to see us?”

    “Got hit b’a snike fieder,” he replied.

    I paused. “You…what…?” I apologized.

    “Got hit by a snike fieder,” he responded again, slightly more clearly and loudly. He seemed a bit irritated.

    “Hang on a second,” I said to him, trying not to act anything but professionally. “Geraldine,” I called calmly through the slightly open door, “Geraldine, could you give me a hand here…”

    “Yes, Doctor…”

    “Maybe you could help me understand this fella’s…uh…concern…?”

    He repeated his reason for visiting us on that warm summer day.

    “Well, Doctor,” chimed Geraldine, “he got hit by a snake feeder.” Her accent was one of few that I could understand regularly. I hadn’t been in BSG for long that summer day.

    “OK, well, pardon my ignorance, but I don’t know what that is…,” I smiled, “maybe you can tell me how this happened.”

    By that time, I had looked at the small dot in the center of his sternum (breastbone) that was slightly darkened, possibly a small clot. There was no other physical evidence of injury. He proceeded to tell me he was riding his motorcycle down the road when a “snake feeder” hit him in the chest. He felt fine, but he zoomed home and told his father who had told him it could be a dangerous injury (bite? sting?) so he came to the hospital. He described this critter to me, but he wasn’t the most articulate young man, so I asked if he could draw a picture. He did.

    Within the first four or five strokes of the pen, I realized that a “snake feeder,” or “snike fieder,” is a dragonfly, about as harmless an insect as you could find. Neither he nor Geraldine nor anyone else I asked over the ensuing weeks could tell me why they call dragonflies “snake feeders,” but I had my theories. I reassured the young man, had Geraldine put some antiseptic on his wound, and released him to his father who had been anxiously waiting for him outside.

    “He gonna be OK, Doc,” he tossed as I walked out the door with him.

    “Absolutely,” I replied, wishing all stories had happy—and amusing—endings like this one.

    From my memoir about practicing medicine in SWVA portion of Appalachia in the Seventies.

  • Reply
    Jean Craven
    July 31, 2019 at 7:31 pm

    I grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. My grandmother called them snake feeders, saying when you saw one, a snake was nearby. Grew up believing they fed the snakes. Now live in the Panhandle of Florida and recently had two beautiful dragonflies show up on my yard. Coincidentally there was a snake in my yard a few days before I saw the dragonflies.

  • Reply
    Barbara Jenkins
    May 27, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I grew up and still live in Buncombe County, WNC. I always heard them called snake feeders as a child. There’s been 2 in my back yard for the last few days and yesterday a black snake joined them out there.

  • Reply
    Chad Davis
    May 21, 2019 at 8:13 pm

    I am a 42 year old male from Soddy Daisy, TN and I am proud to say they have always been called snake feeders or snake doctors. Dragonfly was Col. Trautman’s code name in Rambo 2.

  • Reply
    Helen Gardner
    May 18, 2019 at 12:29 am

    I never heard either term. Maybe because I lived in the city. I’m sure if my daddy, who grew up in Tennessee, had called them snake feeders or snake doctors the few times we saw them he would’ve told us.

  • Reply
    Debbie Stufft
    May 12, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    I am in Western Pennsylvania, and I have always called them snake feeders, and always thought when we seen one that there was snakes near by, I was always scare of the and was told they bite. I guess I got this info from my parents. But I see I am the only one that far north.

  • Reply
    Bernie Parsons
    July 31, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    I was a small boy in Floyd County, in eastern Kentucky, in the 1950s. We grew up hearing them called, and calling them, “snake doctors” and “snake feeders”. At that time, I never knew them as dragonflies.

  • Reply
    David R Judkins
    May 26, 2018 at 10:25 pm

    My wife grew up in Sneedville, Hancock County, Tennessee. I pointed out a damsel fly to her this morning and asked her what is was since she is a biologist. She immediately pronounced it to be a snake feeder.

  • Reply
    Larry Griffith
    May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

    I grew up in E.KY. and always called them snake feeders. As a boy I thought they actually feed snakes.

  • Reply
    Larry Griffith
    May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

    I grew up in E.KY. and always called them snake feeders. As a boy I thought they actually feed snakes.

  • Reply
    Larry Griffith
    May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

    I grew up in E.KY. and always called them snake feeders. As a boy I thought they actually feed snakes.

    • Reply
      Lannie brown
      August 5, 2020 at 6:14 pm

      I grew up in south central ohio fayette co. and we always called then snake feeders .enjoyed reading all the comments

  • Reply
    Larry Griffith
    May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

    I grew up in E.KY. and always called them snake feeders. As a boy I thought they actually feed snakes.

    • Reply
      August 26, 2019 at 3:41 pm

      I was raised in Shelby KY 60-70s my papaw called them snake doctors

  • Reply
    Lora Pauley Ward
    June 14, 2016 at 7:29 am

    I grew up in Southern West Virginia and always heard them called snake doctors. I had heard of dragonflies, mostly in books, but was an adult before I realized they were the same thing. My friend grew up 17 miles from me and had only heard them called dragonflies, until yesterday at the lake which led to an interesting conversation.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    May 30, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    I don’t think anyone in the East Tennessee I knew ever heard of dragon flies but everyone knew snake feeders. That’s all I ever call them but no one here in Northern Indiana knows the word.
    Of course, no one up here knows of jar flies either. Now, they do know cicadas and … funny … many people up here call jar flies locusts.
    But, these are the same people who don’t know what a lightnin’ bug is; they know fireflies.
    You can see by their lack of descriptive speech that people up here have missed a lot of colorful living.

  • Reply
    Richard Beauchamp
    May 27, 2015 at 6:47 am

    I have heard and used snake feeder all my life. Also heard snake Doctor but never used as much as snake feeder in my area,

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    May 26, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Never heard of snake doctor, we called them snake feeders. They are small and fly up and down the creek. We always said they was probably a snake near by. They were small and black in color.
    Hope Pap is getting better each day.
    Peggy L.

  • Reply
    Tim Cuthbertson
    May 26, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    My grandfather was born in the big mountains of western North Carolina in the early 1890’s, and he always called them snake doctors. I still call them that to this day.

  • Reply
    José Luis
    May 26, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Dear Tipper:
    Here in Argentina these dragonflies, are called “aguacil” and when in the countryside or the hills begin to appear is as an ad that come strong winds that can bring also rain.
    I want the twins to know that far from here in Buenos Aires, on 29 May at 0700PM, I’ll be tuning my ear to listen, looking NE, from my balcony as before acting you all, and shout strong them well, Bravo girls !!! .
    I’m sure will be a success that performance, I send a big hello to all friends of the Appalachians, and Pap,… you get better soon to rejoin the band, if it is not playing and because veterans are hard and stubborn, lol!
    I love to sit there listening to their songs, God willing I will in under a year. A very cordial greeting to all, José Luis, the only gaucho banjo player. God bless everyone !!!.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    We always called them Snake Doctors, never knew why, just did. When we first built the house we live in now we had a gold fish/ koi pond with a water fall use to sit on the back deck and love to watch them hover over it.. Pump kept going out was to expense to maintain, something to do everyday, worst than a chicken house.. covered it up..

  • Reply
    Elaine V. Medley
    May 26, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    I grew up in Northwest Alabama (Florence) and all my relatives called them snake doctors. I was a teenager before I knew they were dragonflies.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    When I was a child they were commonly called “snake doctors”. Also, had an uncle in Mississippi and the name was used there also. Haven’t heard anyone use that title in quite a while ,and had essentially forgotten the term until your comment. I think I’ll go back to calling them snake doctors to perpetuate the usage.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 26, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Now that somebody mentioned it, I remember calling them skeeter hawks too.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Has anyone living on NC, ever heard of Fishing Creek, NC? My family ancestors came from Ireland and settled in that area. ” Cooper”, was Cowpers in Ireland. However, originally they were from England and were Barrel Makers. Also, there is Cooper island located in the Virgin island, it was a Barrel manufactuering there.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    That is a new one for me. I will have to ask my native friends from Caldwell County if they have ever heard of the term. Hope Pap is recovering. Still sending prayers!

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    May 26, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    We always called them mosquito hawks.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    May 26, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    At Needmore I always heard them called “Snake Feeders” as a youngster, there were a couple of sloughs below our barn where the Little Tennessee overflowed at flood stage We called them frog ponds as they were full of Bull Frogs and Snake Feeders, I loved to lay and watch the snake feeders and imagine they were little copters. I think this is where I developed my love for helicopters.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    When I was in grammer and even
    elementary school, we took 5 gallon buckets and filled them with brim from Queen’s Creek Lake. Those little boogers were so thin, you could read a newspaper thru ’em.
    We built a pond and fed them oatmeal, the top of the water was
    like Peronas at feeding time. At
    the upper end and along the sides
    were Cattails and snake feeders
    were just thick. We shot lots of
    ’em with BB’s and got lots of
    water snakes too. But we never
    did see a snake feeder actually
    feeding a snake…Ken

  • Reply
    Yecedrah Higman
    May 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    I was born and raised in Arkansas and as a child I was taught they were snake doctors. While trying to figure out how I learned to call them snake doctors, and I am not from NC, it occurred to me that my daddy’s people settled in NC when they came to this country. Guess that is where it came from.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    The first “snake doctor” I remember was hanging around an old creek. We played in the creek daily as children. Children are not always observant, so there was probably many snakes near that ole creek. I recently went back to that area and took pictures…so serene. Of course, I had to capture a picture of the creek. I haven’t seen a snake doctor for many years. Schooling tried to brainwash the Appalachian out of me, but they failed miserably.
    It is great that Pap has a wheelchair ramp. Many temporarily and permanently disabled are confined to home due to not having access via wheelchair ramp. In the mountains all types of carpentry skills can sometimes be found in each family; it is necessary to have self sufficiency. Pap is blessed to have the family he has. Word of warning–those wheelchair ramps get slick slick in winter!

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    May 26, 2015 at 11:59 am

    We called them snake doctors in West Tn. We kids were sure there would be snakes nearby when we saw them.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 11:57 am

    I’ll bet Pap is looking forward to getting out! – even if it is with a wheel chair. Good time of year too – will soon be perfect healing weather with the sun shining down.
    About those dragonflies – I’m not familiar with the “Snake” terms. I have heard them called “darning needles” – I thought that was because of the zig-zag path they sometimes fly over a specific location. I’ve also heard them called “flying jewels” but we have very few of the colorful versions in out parts.
    Did hear of a butterfly enthusiast observing a dragonfly laying eggs on his sun roof. I thought perhaps the angle of the sun fooled the poor thing into thinking the sun roof was a water surface . . . .

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 26, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I never heard of a dragon fly until I was way up in school. When somebody showed me a picture I said “Oh, that’s a snake feeder.” I never heard the term snake doctor til a few years back it was mentioned in one of your posts.
    In Swain County where I grew up we also called them darning needles. And helicopters because of their ability to hover. I don’t see them here where I live now because I am too far from water but I have plenty of news bees to keep me company. So far only the yaller ones have been hovering around me.

    • Reply
      May 18, 2019 at 8:23 am

      I grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada ad we called them Dragon flies and darning needles. Never ever heard the term Snake doctors or Snake feeders. So never associated them with snakes as we have only have a few like green (garter) snakes and brown snakes and a black garter snake. No poisonous snakes

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 10:59 am

    My Daddy always called them Snake Doctors so that is what I call them. We have lots of them around our property and they are so beautiful in greens,blues and purples…looking like gems on a king’s crown!
    We pray for Pap to get stronger each day, Tipper!

  • Reply
    allison p. britt
    May 26, 2015 at 10:51 am

    While growing up in the Northwestern part of N.C. I always heard dragonflies called ‘snake feeders’. Always. I’ve never known any history at all on the name, though.

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    May 26, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I remember as a kid hearing the smaller type of dragonfly called a snake doctor. Never heard the term snake feeder, though. The snake doctor term was used only for the smaller dragonflies that had the slender body. The larger ones with the thicker bodies were just called dragonflies.

  • Reply
    Sarah MacKenzie
    May 26, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for mentioning my home county in TN, Blount. They say that 27 percent of this county is in the mountains. A high percentage of the population bears last names that hail from Cades Cove, Gatlinburg, and other areas of the GSMNP. I do believe I have heard the term “snake doctor” here, but I don’t recall “snake feeder.” I absolutely love the “hillbilly” speech used by most of the people here, and I am so appreciative of your articles on “Appalachian Speech.” Even in high school in Charlotte in about 1956 or 7, I wrote my Junior English term paper on “Folk Songs of the North Carolina Mountains.” I enjoy your blog immensely; thank you for writing it so faithfully.

  • Reply
    Gary Powell
    May 26, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Granny always called them snake doctors. We would look to make sure that there wasn’t a copperhead lurking close by. My grandkids call them pond fairies. I like that name better.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 8:54 am

    We call them snake doctors. As a child I thought a snake was close by and ran when I saw one. To run was probably a wise decision, because where I grew up snakes were everywhere! I saw one of the biggest snakes I have ever seen while I was weedeating last week. It crawled through a crack in the rock foundation and into my cellar/basement. I won’t be going down there anytime soon unless I have to seek shelter during a tornado warning-and that might be today.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    May 26, 2015 at 8:53 am

    I always heard snake doctor, never snake feeder. Glad to hear Pap has some wheels – remind him not to be burning rubber!

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    May 26, 2015 at 8:46 am

    Don’t think I’ve ever heard the term.
    Good on the Deerslayer for building the ramp.
    And a really neat photo.

  • Reply
    roger fingar
    May 26, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Those terms never made it this far south. If they did they were outused by the more regionally appropriate “skeeter hawk” or mosquito hawk (which was a term for more than one species). We I was a kid, they would perch on clothesline pins in such great numbers, it was hard for a new arrival to find an empty pin to park on. The clothespin made it easy to sneak up and catch them from behind. It seems like they would hand on to your finger for a little bit once you let ’em go.
    I guess kids wouldn’t be catching them if had the three foot wingspan they used to. Every time a have a close encounter with a dragonfly, I try to imagine living now with insects of Permian size. My wife thinks our roaches (palmetto bugs) are Permian size.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    May 26, 2015 at 8:37 am

    We always called dragon flies snake doctors in S. C.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    May 26, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Never heard that one!

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    May 26, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Never heard those terms growing up in the East Tennessee River Valley.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    May 26, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Never heard that one, but I vaguely remember something about them sewing up you mouth or ears, something like that.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    May 26, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Never heard that one, but I vaguely remember something about them sewing up you mouth or ears, something like that.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    May 26, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Never heard that one, but I vaguely remember something about them sewing up you mouth or ears, something like that.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    May 26, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Never heard that one, but I vaguely remember something about them sewing up you mouth or ears, something like that.

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    May 26, 2015 at 7:58 am

    I spent my first ten years in Charlotte, and “Snake Doctor” was all we knew. I didn’t hear the term “Drangon fly” until we moved to Miami in 1958. My parents still called them Snake Doctors until they passed. Never knew the connection… Vann

  • Reply
    May 26, 2015 at 7:53 am

    I tried to comment using my phone but comment doesn’t seem to have posted. If this is duplicate – sorry.
    When I was growing up in Kansas City I remember my grandfather calling dragonflies, Snake Doctors. He grew up in rural Colorado around 1900-1910.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    May 26, 2015 at 7:53 am

    I love Damsel flies and Dragonflies…
    I believe the one you have pictured is a Common Sand Dragon…but it does look more gray, I’m not sure. I would have to reference my insect book…There sure are a bunch of different species…
    My Grandmother used to say, “Do not to go outside with just your socks on…for you will make holes in your socks and the “Devils darning needle” will fly in and darn up that sock right on your foot”! Yep, we usually got right back in and pulled off those socks…Evidently, we thought they just flitted around hunting children with holes in their socks…LOL
    At any rate, that is what she called a Damsel fly or Dragon fly with a long skinny body…
    I have also heard, my aunt call them snake doctors or darning needles!
    I have a small goldfish pond in the front yard. I push pieces of cane down around the pond for the damsel flies and dragon flies to lite on…They can land on the tiniest pieces of grass. I did a small painting of one, (had to take a picture of it first) that loved a leaf of water grass that fell over the pond…lol
    The ones with the big wide white tail are all around our raised beds. They look like they have been “crop dusting” with that big white tail…I think they are really after the gnats and mosquitoes!
    They are really beautiful insects and helpful too…
    Have you ever seen those big brown ones in large mall parking lots? Weird places for them…but I actually saw them fly up on hoods of cars and pick off the tiny insects to eat…not kidding!
    Pap is so blessed to have a son-in-law to build him a ramp. What a kind thing to do. You have a good husband Tipper!

  • Reply
    Vickie Fletcher
    May 26, 2015 at 7:51 am

    My family always called them snake doctors. When I see them now I tell our grandkids they are snake doctors. I try to keep these past names going as I now am the older generation! We live in Central Kentucky- our grandparents came from eastern Jackson County Kentucky- the mountains.

  • Reply
    Janice McCall
    May 26, 2015 at 7:36 am

    I grew up in an area where a lot of ore miners lived (Powderly) in B’ham, Alabama. The kids in my neighborhood called them snake doctors. Until today, 62 years later, I’ve never met anyone who has ever heard that term. Thank you so much … now I know I’m not dreaming.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    May 26, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Tipper–I never heard them called anything other than a snake feeder until I was grown. In fact, the first time my feeble mind realized that snake feeder was a synonym for dragonfly was on a trout fishing trip out West where dragon fly patterns were a fine way to catch fish.
    I think snake feeder and snake doctor are first-rate examples of the traditional mountain knack for descriptive names, but other parts of the country and world rival us when it comes to dragon flies. In England and in Arkansas I’ve heard them called a “devil’s knitting needle.”
    Jim Casada

    • Reply
      July 22, 2019 at 10:57 pm

      I am 79 years old and live in mid-Missouri. I think I was grown before I knew they were anything except snake feeders. My husband is also from Missouri and he called them mosquito hawks.

  • Reply
    Deborah Catoe
    May 26, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Yes, Tipper, I have always heard them called snake doctors. I call them that still today. We hope that Pap is doing well.

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