Monday, February 28, 2011

Hunting the Snark

The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring is a collection by Lawrence Dorfman of comments that embody the irascible, snappish, witty quality known as snark.  A few snarky examples:

            I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening.  But this  
            wasn’t it. (Groucho Marx)

            Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a 
            member of Congress.  But I repeat myself. (Mark 

            What do I think of Western civilization?  I think it 
            would be a very good idea. (Mahatma Gandhi)

            This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should
            be thrown with great force. (Dorothy Parker)

            Don’t be humble.  You’re not that great. (Golda Meir)

            Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his 
            shoes.  Then you’re a mile away from him and you 
            have his shoes. (Anonymous)

Well, you get the idea. Or, if you don’t, there’s no hope that you’ll ever learn to be snarky yourself. 

But where did we get the word snark?  It’s been around at least since 1866, when the Oxford English Dictionary cites its use as a verb (derived from Middle Low German snarken) meaning to “snore or snort.”  From that meaning, it was used by 1882 to mean to “find fault with or to nag.”

In 1876 Lewis Carroll wrote “The Hunting of the Snark,” a poem about a mythical creature that he named by combining snail and shark.  Jack London’s 1911 Cruise of the Snark is an account of a voyage across the south Pacific in a ketch called the Snark. These uses do not seem related to snark’s contemporary meaning.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary suggests that snark, meaning “sarcastic, irreverent, or impertinent” dates from 1906 and comes from nark, meaning to “annoy,” a word derived from the Romany nak or “nose.”  In the Snark Handbook, Dorfman maintains the word is a telescoping of  “snide remark.” 

Wherever the word came from, it is a perfect description of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who snarks (as follows):

            Of friends I have but very few,
            But I don’t think that is so terrible,
            Because (and this is entre nous)
            I find the ones I have unbearable.

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