The Grammarphobia Blog

On smarm and snark

Q: The commentariat can’t seem to stop talking about “smarm” and “snark.” Where did these two words come from?

A: Yes, there has been a lot of talk in the media about “smarm” and “snark,” especially since Isaac Fitzgerald, the newly appointed book editor of BuzzFeed, told Poynter.org in November that he wouldn’t publish negative reviews.

We won’t contribute to the cultural finger-waggery in the “smarm”-versus-“snark” debate, but we’re happy to discuss the evolution of these terms.

The latest incarnations of these words are still works in progress, taking on different shades and spins and tones each time they’re used.

In general, though, “smarm” is being used now to mean smug, disapproving self-righteousness and “snark” to mean scornful, dismissive nastiness.

You won’t find the latest senses of these shifty words in most standard dictionaries, but “smarm” and “snark” have etymological roots that date from the 19th century.

The noun “smarm” is derived from a colloquial verb that showed up in the mid-1800s and meant to smear or bedaub, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary says the verb “smarm” first showed up (spelled “smawm”) as an entry in A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1847), by James Orchard Halliwell: “Smawm, to smear. Dorset.”

By the early 1900s, according to OED citations, “smarm” was being used to mean “treat in a wheedling, flattering way” or “behave in a fulsomely flattering or toadying manner.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this Uriah Heepish sense is from the March 1902 issue of Little Folks, a magazine for children: “You can go and smarm him over if you want to.”

And here’s an example from Widdershins, a 1911 collection of ghost stories by the English novelist Oliver Onions: “It had been the usual thing, usual in those days, twenty years ago—smarming about Art and the Arts.”

In the 1920s, according to OED citations, the adjective “smarmy” showed up, meaning “ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous.”

Here’s an example from The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1924), a mystery by Lynn Brock: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.”

The noun “smarm” appeared in the 1930s, meaning “an unctuous bearing; fulsome flattery; flattering or toadying behaviour,” according to the OED.

Oxford’s first example is from Clunk’s Claimant, a 1937 detective story by the English author Henry Christopher Bailey: “That smarm of holiness … was pretty near the ruddy limit.”

The dictionary’s latest example, from the Feb. 19, 1978, issue of the Guardian Weekly, uses “smarm” in that same toadying sense: ‘George’ did this, ‘George’ did that, all the way through. ‘George’ is the victim of bonhomie and smarm.”

Most standard dictionaries still define “smarmy” and “smarm” in terms of obsequious flattery or excessively ingratiating behavior, though the Cambridge Dictionaries Online website includes “disapproving” as an informal sense of “smarmy.”

The disapproving, self-righteous sense of “smarm” is a relatively recent phenomenon. We haven’t pinned down exactly when the obsequious “smarm” got its disapproving sense, but the usage took off after BuzzFeed’s declaration that negative reviews were a no-no.

In an article last month entitled “On Smarm,” for example, Tom Scocca, the features editor at Gawker, offered this definition of the term:

“What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

“Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”

The noun “snark” first showed up as an imaginary creature in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876), but the word we’re talking about here is derived from a verb that appeared a decade earlier.

The OED describes the verb “snark” as a dialectal term “of imitative nature” that means to snore or snort.

The earliest citation for the verb in Oxford is from an 1866 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I will not quite compare it [a sound] to a certain kind of snarking or gnashing.”

In the early 1880s, according to the dictionary, the verb took on a new sense: to find fault with or to nag.

The OED’s first example of the new usage is from an 1882 edition of Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which defines “snark” as “to fret, grumble, or find fault with one.”

In the early 1900s, this fault-finding sense of the verb “snark” gave us the adjective “snarky,” which Oxford defines as “irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky.’ ” (“Narky” is a British and Australian term for being irritable or sarcastic.)

The OED’s first example of “snarky” is from The Railway Children (1906), a children’s book by the English author Edith Nesbit: “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault.”

The related noun “snarkiness” showed up in the 1960s, according to Oxford, but we’ve found only one passing reference to it in eight standard dictionaries. The abbreviated noun “snark” hasn’t made it into the OED or standard dictionaries.

Like “smarm,” the noun “snark” is a relative newcomer. One of the earliest examples we’ve seen is from an essay on book reviewing by the author and editor Heidi Julavits.

In the March 2003 issue of The Believer, a literary magazine she co-edits, Julavits discusses reviews that display “wit for wit’s sake,” “hostility for hostility’s sake,” and a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.”

“I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community,” she writes.

In the article, she uses the terms “snark,” “snarkiness,” or “snarky” 15 times (no “smarm,” however).

Yes, that’s a lot of snark. But David Denby has written a whole book about it, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation (2009).

The New Yorker writer considers snark “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.”

“It’s the bad kind of invective—low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark—that I hate,” he writes.

Enough “snark” hunting! We’ll let Charles Dodgson and his Snark hunters have the last word:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

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