Sunday, February 22, 2009

Snark, mention NOT use

I've been resisting commenting on David Denby's new book, Snark, because I haven't read it and don't plan to.* But hey, this is the blogosphere, so why not. I do admit to laughing out loud at the powerfully snarky reactions on Wonkette and now by Walter Kirn in the NYT Book Review.

I'm starting to get intrigued by the word's history, though. The noun snark 'imaginary animal' apparently goes back Lewis Carroll's famous "Hunting of the Snark" written and published in the 1870s. This is Denby's story, as described here by Snarkmeister Kirn:
The humor that stirs this wrongful laughter is “snark,” named for a fictional creature from the poem “The Hunting of the Snark,” by Lewis Carroll. As a species of vicious contemporary humor, it is defined by Denby in many ways — so many, in fact, that the creature never materializes as anything more than a shadow on a wall that Denby keeps shooting at yet never hits.
Whether Denby hits the shadows or not, I'm thinking this story is wrong. Here's the OED Online entry for the verb snark:
[Corresponds to MLG. and LG. snarken (NFris. snarke, Sw. and Norw. snarka), MHG. snarchen (G. schnarchen,schnarken), of imitative origin: cf. SNORK v.]

1. intr. To snore; to snort.

1866 N. & Q. 3rd Ser. X. 248/1, I will not quite compare it [a sound] to a certain kind of snarking or gnashing. 1907 Westm. Gaz. 9 Nov. 4/1 All of a sudden she (the mare, I suppose he meant) snarked an' begun to turn round.

2. intr. and trans. To find fault (with), to nag.

1882 Jamieson's Sc. Dict. IV. 314/2 To Snark, .. to fret, grumble, or find fault with one. 1904 E. NESBIT Ph{oe}nix & Carpet x. 185 He remembered how Anthea had refrained from snarking him about tearing the carpet.
The early meaning is attested before Carroll and it's easy to get from that meaning to the one we're talking about. And the relevant meaning comes not long after, in a source (a Scottish dictionary) that's very unlikely to be listing a then-new coinage in some even newer meaning. OED gives snarky as deverbal, and that seems straightforward to me. The noun used in Denby's title seems more likely to be a cropping from snarky than a development from Carroll's animal. I wonder if Denby just mechanically checked the noun since he's using the noun?

There are other stories out there too. Various sources connect it to nark, narky, meaning irritable. Urban Dictionary has what's surely a folk etymology: a blend of snide + remark. Cute, though.

*OK, I confess: I read the first chapter on the NYT website. It was painful.

Image from here. And a big HT to Monica.


goofy said...

I wrote a bit about snark fyi.

Mr. Verb said...

Aha, I knew somebody else would have gone down a similar path. Thanks!

Goetz Kluge said...

Example for the usage of "snarking" as a word which describes a sound: "On the road from Salisbury to Lymington is a milestone which is affirmed by very many to render an audible sound to those who are passing by it. [...] Those who assert that they hear the sound all concur in representing it to be a kind of scratching or scranching, like the edge of an iron-tipped, or the sole of a roughly-nailed, boot being harshly drawn across the gravel. I will not quite compare it to a certain kind of snarking or gnashing, [...]" Source: Notes and Queries (1866-09-29), Series 3, Volume 10, p. 248, doi: 10.1093/nq/s3-X.248.248-f,