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What is the history behind the colorful name of this result? Cartan-Eilenberg states it without any particular fanfare.

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Jill Clayburgh. – Will Jagy Sep 11 '12 at 19:34
Very nice, Andrew! – Alex Becker Sep 11 '12 at 20:00
Nice, but the tikz-rendering of page 8 of seems to be even a bit more snaky (and was one of the reasons I switched to tikz). – Lennart Meier Sep 12 '12 at 11:13
Oh, 4 votes to close !!! I don't see any reason why this interesting question should be closed. I think there are to many easy-closers around. – Joël Sep 12 '12 at 14:47
@Lennart: but i think Andrew's drawing looks more elegant :-) – Suvrit Sep 12 '12 at 15:07
up vote 22 down vote accepted

I suspect the name just arose naturally (for obvious reasons) but that it would be tough to trace back to any single person. After Cartan-Eilenberg proved it in 1956 (Homological Algebra, p.40) the first mention I see in English is by Tate in 1966/67 (p-divisible groups, p.178) followed by Hartshorne in 1968 (Cohomological Dimension of Algebraic Varieties, p.446), neither of which bother with a citation, reference, or quotation marks (1). However, it was used a bit earlier - also without citation or quotation marks - by Begueri-Poitou in 1965 (2) as 'lemme du serpent'; mentioned early on in their abstract. [NB: the first page of the linked pdf incorrectly lists the second author's surname as Poiton.]

Edit: I used numdam to search for 'serpent'. Cartan has an unrelated quotation about a snake nearly biting its own tail (1965, pdf p.16/17), but actually relevant is a paper by Grothendieck dating to 1964 mentioning a snake diagram ("le diagramme du serpent", pdf p.195/258) that he attributes to (Bourbaki, Alg. comm, chap. I, $\S$1, no 4, prop. 2). You can see the term snake diagram in the much later English translation, and (confirmed by the comments below) it is found in the 1961 original, as well. As far as I know, this is the first published instance that uses the snake terminology.

My guess for the time being: The term snake diagram originated (in French) around 1961 and was first used by one of the Bourbaki members (possibly Cartan, Eilenberg, or Grothendieck). Snake lemma almost certainly has a similar origin.

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For what it's worth: the English version of Bourbaki dates from 1981, but the Russian translation from 1971 uses the name "snake diagram" ("змеевидная диаграмма"). – Ketil Tveiten Sep 12 '12 at 8:49
I confirm that the original edition of Algèbre commutative, Chap. 1 dates back from 1961. For the list of Bourbaki's original editions, see – François Brunault Sep 12 '12 at 9:18
And I confirm that the relevant pages of said french first edition look (up to language) as the english ones linked above. In particular, they mention "le diagramme de serpent". – Fred Rohrer Sep 12 '12 at 9:49
About the Cartan quotation : the french expression equivalent to "vicious circle" is about a snake biting its own tail -- so it has nothing to do with the snake's lemma. – Julien Puydt Sep 12 '12 at 11:07

If you Google for "diagramme du serpent" it becomes plausible that it was a diagram in Cartan-Eilenberg first of all, before a lemma. Interesting example of how Bourbaki became the standard grad student syllabus.

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