Regarding Snark


Henry Holiday, illustration from “The Hunting of the Snark”

In recent months we’ve received a number of kind compliments on this site, but none that pleases us quite so much as the left-handed compliment we haven’t gotten: “snarky.” “Snarky” is clearly one of our cultural words du jour, and it gets applied to blogs as readily and unthinkingly as “crushing” gets paired with “blow” or “veritable” gets tacked on to “smorgasbord.” (Honestly, are there no approximate smorgasbords? No smorgasbords in full?) So automatic is the label that it’s a wonder we’ve been able to duck it; but then, we’ve tried hard to resist the term “blog” as well.

As much as we dislike it and the tone it’s come to stand for, the word “snarky” is actually quite firmly entrenched in the language, as John McIntyre pointed out recently. Evidently there was a recorded usage in E. Nesbitt’s 1906 classic The Railway Children: “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It wasn’t our fault.” We would add, although this is probably a stretch, that the word may date back even further—to Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1874), a poem whose joys everyone should experience if they haven’t already, and whose opening lines strike a note of absurdly misplaced confidence that we do try to emulate:

“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

The connection between Carroll’s “inconceivable creature” and modern-day Gawker may be tenuous at best, but it seems clear in any case that snark, or snarkiness, was once charming and idiomatically British, and not the annoying buzzword of an entire generation.

We’ll admit that we do veer dangerously close to snark at times (cf. yesterday’s post), but we think we largely steer clear in the end. Occasionally we strive for cynical wit, which is a bit like snark, only less relentlessly pop-culture-informed and less willing to kill its own joke. A devastating putdown is wit; a cheap putdown followed by “Ha.” is snark. We also try to blend the cynicism with a cheerful, if possibly tongue-in-cheek, celebration of fine taste and luxury—what a friend nicely described as “pseudo-priggishness.” If Ambrose Bierce and Lady Bracknell could somehow have had a love child, we would want to sound like it. That style may carry its own set of risks, but it isn’t snark. Finally, as we hope this post will demonstrate, we hold an earnest love and appreciation for books and art, which we try to convey at every possible opportunity. That kind of sincerity, if nothing else, proves us innocent of snarkiness. What we tell you three times is true.


Filed under Books and Publishing, Style Points

5 responses to “Regarding Snark

  1. At the thought of a love child of Ambrose Bierce and Lady Bracknell, my blood runs cold.

  2. abbeville

    Ah, but in a good way, no?

  3. Great reference – a Hunting of the Snark fan here! Favorite book that I haven’t seen since college(actually wrote a paper on the book).

  4. Michael Krugman

    I don’t think connecting the word “snark” to Lewis Carroll’s poem is a stretch at all. The cuttingly sardonic tone of the poem comes about as close to a definition of snarkiness as I can imagine. When one engages in snark, one is simply attempting to equal or surpass that tone so masterfully epitomized by “The Hunting of the Snark.” As in:

    He brought them a map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land ;
    And the crew were all glad when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.

    ‘What’s the use of Mercators, North Pole and equators,
    Tropics, zones, and meridian lines?’
    So the captain would cry, and the men would reply,
    ‘They are only conventional signs.’

    That’s snark!

  5. michael

    snarky warky tra la la
    i like words so much
    they have some kind of substance
    it seems that i can touch

    words that wish and some that sing
    i wonder at their ways
    or read a thing and let it bring
    me evrything it says

    i feel some words imagined
    say them in my mind
    they connotate
    and i cant wait to see what i will find

    snarkys not a nice one
    that i would like to use
    in all of living language
    all of living muse

    but hey i am a wanderer
    a travellin tinker too
    i love the lore
    the land the shore
    the path and the passing through

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