The origin of the phrase “sneaky f**cker”


Jason Collins


January 8, 2014

When low-status males have no chance of accessing females via traditional routes such as fighting or signalling their prowess, they may attempt more deceptive means of getting a mate.

As an example, some male fish take advantage of the external fertilisation of eggs by hiding on the periphery of the courting male’s territory, including in some cases disguising themselves as females. When the eggs are released, they rush in and attempt to fertilise them. This strategy can be dangerous, but for males that simply aren’t in the game, it may be their only option.

The technical term for this behaviour is kleptogamy, but it is better known as the “sneaky fucker” strategy. I’ve often heard and read in the blogosphere that John Maynard Smith coined the phrase, but I haven’t been able to turn up anything authoritative.

The earliest use of the term I have been able to find is by Richard Dawkins and John Krebs in their chapter Animal Signals: Information or Manipulation in the 1978 first edition of Krebs and Nicholas Davies Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach (HT: Rob Brooks). The relevant passage is as follows:

It is especially interesting that the movements of the eventual loser of a contest closely parallel those of the winner until a few moments before giving up, just as one would expect if the contest involves both bluff and assessment. A similar effect was observed in red deer stags (Cervus elephus) by Clutton-Brock (in prep.); the stags compete for hinds to add to their harems, and contests consist of prolonged roaring duels. Escalated contests are rare, and they are costly because of the high risk of injury and because subordinate males, known as sneaky fuckers, may steal matings during a prolonged fight. Contests are settled by roaring: the two males roar at each other with a gradually increasing tempo until one suddenly gives up …

Interestingly, the mention of sneaky fuckers is an aside and not the point of the paragraph. Also, the phrase “known as sneaky fuckers” suggests the term was already established.

So, does anyone know of an earlier reference to the sneaky fucker strategy?

UPDATE: In the comments, Alex Sutherland notes an earlier reference from New Scientist in 1977 (Vol 75, p673). In an article The games animals play, Jeremy Cherfas writes (also on the subject of Clutton-Brock’s work on stags):

A stag can gain females by successfully challenging other stags. Fights start with a session of roaring, which may be followed by parallel walking and perhaps a tussle with locked antlers. If the challenger had a harem, the winner takes control of both sets of hinds. The benefits of a larger harem in terms of increased reproductive potential, are clear, but what of the costs? Clutton-Brock estimates that during the average reproductive life of four years, 20 per cent of the stags are permanently injured in fights. The costs are considerable. For a bachelor without a harem the benefits outweigh the costs, and one finds that harem owners initiate fights less often than bachelors. The costs are also increased when both stags hold harems, largely because young stags take advantage of the fight to steal hinds from the harems. (This is known as kleptogyny, but Clutton-Brock and most others prefer “the sneaky fucker strategy”.) Fights, and injuries, are more frequent in mid rut, when most conceptions occur.

This passage confirms the phrase was already established by 1977. And again, the mention is an aside and not a discussion of the sneaky fucker strategy itself.