For my latest appearance on Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast, I quizzed the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield about a five-letter word that seemed to spring out of nowhere in online usage about a decade ago but in fact has roots that are centuries old: snark.
As I told Mike and Bob, snark took off among the digerati around 2002, when the site Television Without Pity grew out of some previous incarnations, devoted to recapping TV shows in a playfully caustic manner. The recappers were proudly snarky, to use an informal adjective that has meant "irritable" or "sharply critical" since the late nineteenth century. The adjective snarky turned into the noun (and verb) snark on TWoP: their official motto was "Spare the snark, spoil the networks" (playing off the old saying, "spare the rod, spoil the child").
The slogan for Television Without Pity, as it appeared on the site in early 2002.
A year later, snark came under attack by Heidi Julavits in the first issue of the magazine The Believer, though she was complaining about the snarkiness of critics in the traditional print media. Julavits described snark as "an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals." But one of the Television Without Pity recappers, Pamela Ribon, defended snark on her blog. "Good snark" of the kind found on TWoP "points out when the networks are treating you like a stupid child," Ribon wrote, adding, "You should embrace the snark, demand better snark, and refuse to read bad snark."
The snark wars continued over the years, propelled in part by David Denby's 2009 book Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. Snark was once again defended late last year by Gawker's Tom Scocca, who devoted 9,000 words to argue that the real enemy is not snark but smarm. As I note on the podcast, snark and smarm make an interesting pair on etymological grounds, since they were formed so similarly. Smarm starts off as a verb meaning "smear" or "make oily," which leads to the adjective smarmy meaning "excessively ingratiating." Then, by the process of back-formation, the -y was removed from smarmy to form smarm meaning "unctuous or ingratiating behavior."
Snark followed a similar path, first as a verb meaning "find fault with" or "nag," which begat the adjective snarky and then, about a century later, the modern noun snark. But where did the verb snark come from? In its original meaning, referring to a snorting or snoring sound, it is quite old indeed. It actually goes back to a Germanic root that is shared by words in a number of languages, such as Low German snarken, Swedish snarka, and Frisian snarke, all having to do with snorting. Along with snark, this root contributed the English dialectal word snork.
Snark, snork, snort, snore... throw in sneer, snarl, snigger, snicker, snivel, and snooze, and you start to see a pattern of sn- words that have to do with unpleasant noises and behaviors, especially those produced nasally (i.e., through the snout). This leads into the realm of sound symbolism, wherein so-called "phonesthemes" like sn- seem to carry with them a kernel of meaning across a family of words. For another example, see my piece on skedaddle, a word that joined many others starting with the sk- sound (scoot, scamper, scurry, skitter, etc.) to suggest brisk movement.
I suspect that these disagreeable sn- words helped to inspire Lewis Carroll to name the mythical creature in his extended poem "The Hunting of the Snark." Carroll never revealed where snark came from in his own writing, though his confidante Beatrice Hatch recounted in The Strand Magazine in 1898 (more than two decades after the poem's publication) that Carroll created snark as a blend or "portmanteau" combining snail and shark. Others have surmised that it was a combination of snake and shark, or snarl and bark. While Carroll was clearly a fan of such blends (portmanteau is his own coinage, as Georgia Scurletis discussed here), there could very well have been multiple inspirations for the creature's name.
Similarly, snark itself seems to congeal from multiple etymological sources. (I discuss in the podcast how nark and narky may have also played a role in the development of snark and snarky.) Not every word origin story is a tidy one, but a messy and murky explanation seems rather fitting for a vexatious word like snark.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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