The Grammarphobia Blog

Hunting the origin of “snarky”

A: I see the word “snarky” in newspapers and hear it on TV all the time, but I can’t figure out what it means. Please help!

Q: I can understand your confusion. It sometimes seems as if “snarky” has as many definitions as users.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the slang term “snarky” as irritable or short-tempered. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as crotchety or snappish. The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website, says it means critical in an annoying, sarcastic, grumpy, wisecracking, or cynical way. Other definitions that I’ve seen include witty, ironic, curmudgeonly, snide, snotty, and arrogant. It’s your pick.

Now for a little history. The earliest published reference for the verb “snark,” meaning to snore or snort, is from 1866, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s related to “snarken,” an old Germanic word for snore. By 1882, the OED says, the verb “snark” also meant to find fault with or nag. The adjective “snarky,” according to the OED, dates to 1906 and originally meant “irritable.”

The unrelated noun “snark” was coined by Lewis Carroll in “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876), a poem about the search for an imaginary creature. However, Carroll at one point in his poem uses “snark” as a verb:

Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
A thing, as the Bellman remarked,
That frequently happens in tropical climes,
When a vessel is, so to speak, “snarked.”

I hope I haven’t left you confused or, for that matter, snarked.