Saturday, May 10, 2008

snarky, sarky and narky

In the comments for the last post, Jo asks:
(By the way, had you run into the geeky AmE "snarky" to mean sarcastic? I'd always wondered where that word had come from, and now I think I see a family resemblance.)
As I said there, I love the word snarky because I find it rather evocative. But there are a couple of assumptions to challenge in Jo's query. First, it doesn't seem to be exclusively AmE--the first OED example of it is from the very English book The Railway Children. It comes from the dialectal verb snark, meaning 'to snort' and also 'to nag, find fault' (which has some cognates in other Germanic languages). AmE speakers may use it more commonly than BrE speakers these days, or it may still be regional--I don't know--but these may be reasons why Jo assumes it's AmE.

Second, it doesn't quite mean 'sarcastic', like BrE sarky, though it could readily be used of someone who was being sarcastic. It means something more like 'irritable, bad-tempered' (OED). If someone's being sarcastic, it's often a symptom of bad temper, so one can see how the two have come to be linked in (some of) our minds. An AmE word that comes to mind is snit, which means a little fit of bad temper. I wonder if the case could be made for some sound symbolism between /sn/ and bad temper. /sn/ is onomatopoetic in words for nose-breathing-actions: sniff, snort, etc. And bad temper is getting one's nose out of joint or possibly turning one's nose up at something (and we get /sn/ in snob...). [There seems to be at least one academic paper on the topic, so I won't go any further on this...probably not news.]

Now, a BrE speaker may be led to believe that snarky is AmE because they're more accustomed to (BrE) narky, which the OED gives as a synonym of snarky. This is derived from to nark 'annoy', hence (BrE) narked 'annoyed'.

Now, I was surprised to learn that the 'police informer' sense of nark is related to this. It comes from a sense of nark meaning 'nose'--so a nark noses around for the police. But in AmE we also have narc, short for 'narcotics officer'. I always believed that the informer sense was based on narcotics too. This is why one shouldn't make assumptions about etymologies based on the apparent similarities between contemporary words. It's likely that narc was influenced by nark, and that narky, snarky and sarky have influenced each other. Still, they have different roots.

31 comments:

Jo said...

Oh, I'm delighted to be heard! Actually, as a AmE speaker who has only recently moved to the UK, I assumed "snarky" actually came from geek culture, as I have seen it used almost exclusively in online forums discussing TV programs, where a character like Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was said to "bring the snark." So that may be a slightly different connotation to the traditional word.

Joe said...

Does Lewis Carrol's poem The Hunting of the Snark have anything to do with this?

lynneguist said...

Not that I know of. The dialectal verb predates Carroll, but who knows where he took his inspiration from.

lynneguist said...

Or, Joe, were you referring to Jo's comment? I do think that Buffy reference is an allusion to Carroll's poem.

Jonathan Bogart said...

I'm not sure you have the complete story, Lynne. "Snarky" may originally have meant "irritable," but as it's commonly used today (often in online discourse, as Jo says), it's used to indicate behavior roughly analogous to BrE "taking the piss."

So for example, Mike and the robots snarked on (or were snarky towards) the old movies in Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Comics Curmudgeon snarks on newspaper comics. The literary magazine The Believer has even run anti-snark editorials, positioning something like genuine enthusiasm as snark's opposite.

This usage of the word may be primarily AmE, though I imagine BrE speakers who spend a lot of time online and entrenched in various geek cultures would be familiar with it.

lynneguist said...

Well, it may be used more specifically in geek subculture--it still fits, I think, with the definition I've given--but when I use it (and, boy do I use it), it doesn't just mean 'sarcastic'. E.g. if BH is being grumpy about something I'll say "Don't get snarky with me!" Not that BH ever gets grumpy, angel that he is (he's reading this over my shoulder).

mollymooly said...

"snippy" is a similar word I see a lot on the interwebs. It's not marked as AmE in COD but there are no uses in SARA: is it a recent coinage or a recent import from AmE?

String said...

Not to take an opposing view to all you professional language types, but I've always been of the belief that snark as used in AmE popular culture is simply contracted from snide remark. This is also how it's defined at urbandictionary.com, a site I consider fairly authoritative for pop-culture definitions (with no disrespect to the OED).

P.S.: Hi Jo!

JohnB said...

Ohh - Porn Spam :)

lynneguist said...

The Urban Dictionary is a hive of folk etymology.

Porn spam noted and removed. I met your wife today, JohnB!

JohnB said...

She said she met you. I am surprised that she wanted to associate with me, as she knows I post outrageous things on otherpeoples Blogs every so often :)

Still, I was able to check the porn spam over while she was out of the house.

Ginger Yellow said...

I have to agree with Jonathan Bogart. In the blogosphere at least, snarky posts tend to involve mockery rather than substantive criticism. Sarcasm isn't necessary, but it might push a post into "high snark".

Doug Sundseth said...

MW 10C (AmE) lists "snippy" as "ca. 1848" (without further etymological notes), so it's not a new coinage. This matches my intuition, as I'd expect it in the vocabulary of a waspish grandmother rather than a youth.

I can't speak to its usage in BrE.

Anonymous said...

I personally think that Snarky implies both being sarcastic and irritable.
It implies (to me) sarcasm that is meant to be biting as opposed to just being sarcastic for the sake of being funny.

Robin said...

In my mind, there is definitely an element of "issuing possibly unjust and usually petty criticism." involved in being snarky. It's not just being irritable, although one is often irritable while being snarky. It often involves sarcasm, but doesn't have to.

lynneguist said...

I'm only disagreeing with the etymology on Urban Dictionary...it has the markings of a folk etymology--i.e. an interpretation of a word's history that makes sense to the present-day speaker, but that isn't the actual way that the word developed. Real etymology is done by checking dates and sources and making sure that they match up--not just by putting together an explanation that seems to make sense.

The senses that are being discussed for snarky all seem to be consistent with its historical use. My definition, reliant on the OED, didn't catch the nuances that some of the further comments have.

Cameron said...

Besides which, etymologies which rely on acronyms and/or portmanteaus are almost invariably and inevitably wrong, viz. Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden; For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge; Port Out Starboard Home... and so endlessly on.

Anonymous said...

This would seem to be a good time to take a stab at guessing the origin of the BrE slang parky, meaning chilly.

Atlantic said...

When did "snarky" become popular? I moved to the UK about 15 years ago and I always assumed it was BrE, perhaps because I don't remember ever hearing itin the States.

Jackie said...

Howdy. Just popping by to say that I stumbled onto your blog (when searching the web for an explanation as to why the British have weird -zza nicknames for people) and I love it! I am an avid Anglophile living in the the US (you can probably tell what area just by my greeting, right? haha) and I have always been very amused by linguistics, particularly that of the UK and also the area I am from (I'm in a place called Bowling Green, where ridiculously enough most residents don't know what a bowling green actually is). Anyhoo, I've added the feed onto my Livejournal and will probably pop back up to say things from time to time!

Cameron said...

Anon, "parky" stands for "perishing and really kold, y'know?" along the same sort of pattern as OK from "oll korrekt."

No really. It does.

lynneguist said...

Cameron is ably demonstrating snarky and sarky. Thanks, Cameron!

Welcome to the conversation, Jackie.

JohnB said...

Thank you for the link to The Railway Children. I couldn't sleep last night so I read through the book, and it bought back good memories of the film for me. :)

Anonymous said...

My friends and I use "snarky" (describing people or their remarks) to refer to a snide, superior tone taken in criticizing something. It is closer to "sarcastic" than to "grumpy", but "sarcastic" doesn't quite cover it. It may be sarcastic to say "Nice job" to someone who has just messed up, but it is not snarky. Snarky is a whole nother level of snide. For something to be really snarky it has to contain an ostentatious cleverness and wit but also a real spitefulness and meanness of spirit. When someone says something really snarky, part of you wants to laugh, part of you wants to applaud, and part of you wants to punch him hard in the face.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about anyone else, but it seemed to be common in the north of England and and was used to imply a cross between being snide and bad-tempered. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but perhaps you should go north of Watford a little more often? There are often differences between north and south. (I was born in the north, now live in the south.) And I've never heard 'eyeballing' in the sense of 'measuring, only 'eyeing [it] up'.

lynneguist said...

I rely on others to be up north for us and to report their findings!

Would be more helpful to comment on eyeball at that post, thanks.

Silk Blooms said...

I'd say the word Narky or 'Narcy' comes from the word Narcisist. They have very similar meanings, Narky means narcisisrtic-like.

ErinBrenner said...

I love "snarky," but I always thought it was British. I have no reason to think so, but I did. As you say, we shouldn't assume!

Henry Brice said...

I know both snarky (actually in both uses that seem to be occuring here, as a snide remark and as grumpy or moody) and a snit (usually as part of the phrase "to be in a snit") from my father's side of the family, mainly my scottish grandfather.

It often seems true that my grandfather's vocabulary is often closer to AmE than BE...

enitharmon said...

'Snarky' is a favourite of mine, as is 'snit'. 'Snit' I defintely picked up from my American ex and no British term will quite fit. I'm not sure where I got 'snarky' from but it does a job 'sarky' doesn't. Also 'snark' can stand perfectly well as a noun.

Irritability isn't quite it. Nor is it quite taking the piss, although that is involved. I spent my student days in Liverpool and 'snark' fits nicely with something in the Liverpudlian character; it's not hostile but it is debunking, perhaps there's a kind of louche cynicism in there. John Lennon was a master of snark, as were all the other Beatles to a lesser extent.

It's been said within the last few weeks that if snarkiness was an Olympic event I'd be a contender for the gold. But let's not go there, hey!

Anonymous said...

I suffer from narcolepsy and my husband says he knows when I need a nap as I get narky. It made me wonder if there is any connection between the condition and the origin of the word?