Journalist Nico Hines of the Times of London recently informed me that snarky is a NOOB. This surprised me, as I had always assumed–without really thinking about it–that the term for a certain kind of glib sarcastic negativity, endemic to the the internet, was a recent American coinage, possible derived in a roundabout way from Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem “Hunting of the Snark.” But Nico was correct.

The term was apparently first used in the New York Times in 1995, in a reference to “snarky put-downs and the fever for electronic communiques” (quaint phrase, that, dating from the dawn of e-mail). That quote does not appear in the Times’ online archive (presumably due to copyright issues) but the redoubtable William Safire referred to it the following year while noting the “growing use” of snarky.  He said he was “reluctant” to attribute this to Carroll, noting that ten years before the poem, the British publication Notes and Queries referred to “a certain kind of snarking or gnashing.” He went on:

In his 1976 diaries, Richard Crossman, a [British] Cabinet minister, used the word to describe a journalistic tone in the sense that snarky is currently used in the White House to deal with some of us who observe the passing political scene: ‘The stream of anti-government propaganda, smearing, snarky, derisive, which comes out of Fleet Street.”

The OED contends the word derives from snork, meaning snore or snort. The dictionary cites Jessie Vaizey’s 1913 (British) novel College Girl:  “‘Why should you think I am “snarky”?’ ‘Because—you are! You’re not a bit sociable and friendly.’” Wonderful quote:  the title of the novel suggests the “crowd” that used the word, the end of the line of dialogue suggests a definition (not sociable, not friendly), and the quotation marks suggest that in 1913 it was slang of fairly recent vintage.

American use came a bit earlier than that 1995 Times quote. In 1970, Billboard called Roberta Flack’s song “Reverend Lee” “an amusing, slightly snarky slam at Southern Baptist morals.” And Marilyn French (a Harvard PhD who wrote her dissertation on James Joyce) wrote in The Women’s Room (1977):

Bliss turned with a snarky smile. “Thanks. Paul thinks so too, I guess. He asked me to go to the Bahamas with him. Some lawyers’ conference. Think I should go?” Mira had learned enough sophistication to be able to play the snarky game.

Google Ngrams show interesting patterns in British and American use of snarky. In the U.K., it was an available but rarely used term through the twentieth century, and rapidly rose in popularity from 1998 to the present. In the U.S., it was hardly ever used (most references are to a mid-century puppet character called Snarky Parker) until 1990, when it went through the roof.

U.S. use of “snarky”

So snarky is number one with a bullet among both peoples, but note this: the Ngrams show that as of 2008 (the most recent year for which figures were available), it was about ten times more commonly used in the U.S. than the U.K. What does that prove? If your answer is that a country gets the words it deserves, you will get no argument from me.

31 thoughts on ““Snarky”

  1. That’s bizarre. The word I and all the British people of my acquaintance use is “sarky”, which I’ve always assumed was taken from “sarcastic”, seeing as being sarky so often involves being sarcastic. Sticking an “n” in there makes absolutely no sense at all. Maybe sarky is some kind of backformation.

  2. I think there were originally two distinct usages of snark/snarky. The British usage meant “nasty, irritable, unfriendly” and is reflected nicely in the 1913 text cited in the post. The other usage was (I think) originally from Australia/New Zealand and in that sense snarky was a portmanteau word combining nasty and sarcastic. I suspect the increasing usage of snarky in both Britain and North America is the originally antipodean usage becoming part of standard English.

  3. It’s a word I’ve never ever heard anyone use, though, as Jan points out, “sarky” is very common. And, by the way, there is no such newspaper as the “Times of London” – it is simply “The Times”, having given birth to all the other newspapers around the world with similar titles. This particular contemptuous appellation was invented by editors of the Johnny-come-lately “New York Times”, and is in any case factually untrue, as The Times is published in Glasgow, on Merseyside, and at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire..

  4. I was going to say I had not heard of an American saying snarky, but then I was reading a particular FB post of someone in the Southwest who said someone else was snarky, and meant it as a compliment.

  5. Snarky has been used here in Oz throughout my 5 decades, as a mash of sarcastic and nasty with a large dash of the snarky person being more irritated than they normally are.

  6. I left the UK in 1990 but grew up there and left as an adult – I don’t remember ever hearing the word “snarky”. When I came here and heard it, I thought that people were saying “sarky” but in fact, that word isn’t used here. The two aren’t really synonymous in my opinion either. “Sarky” obviously means ‘sarcastic”, and since Americans are nowhere near as sarcastic as Brits, the word “snarky” means something closer to “bitchy” or “mean” but without the bite or wit of sarcasm.

  7. And PS @David, Americans say “The Times – of London” because there are many Times newspapers here and it’s not immediately obvious which one they’re talking about. I would bet that if an American said “The Times” (talking about a national newspaper) he might be presumed to be talking about The New York Times.

  8. Anyway, I suspect you are wrong, Mr Armstrong. Those may be the sites where The Times is printed, but I rather think it is published in Thomas More Square, London E1.

  9. Thank you for the correction, Picky. You are aptly named. But the fact still stands that there is no newspaper called “Times of London”. And it was the New York Times that invented the term, I suspect to boost their chances of being called THE Times.

  10. Congrats on the Times article today! The thing that I hear around the office (NYC large institutional theater) is “on the blower” for on the phone. Have heard elsehwere as well.

  11. Well, yes, and the expression always makes me smile: it would be better if the “of London” — which clearly is useful to Americans — were separated off by commas or parentheses. But it’s a small point, and we are all guilty of our parochialisms.

  12. The convention on this side of the Atlantic is that the actual title of the publication (as it appears on the masthead) is put in italics. I’ve just bought a supposedly academic American book which refers to The Times throughout as the “London Times”, with both words italicized. In foreign countries (perhaps not Wales) best practice is to italicize “The Times” and in brackets after this put (London) without italics.

  13. I came to live in the UK 30 years ago & I have never ever heard the word used in Britain. I think the author is confusing it, as others have pointed out, with the very common Brit slang term ‘sarcy’. I have always considered the word snarky as an Americanism, as in North America generally. I was born in 1953 & growing up in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s we used it quite commonly in speech as did US Americans- it means ‘sneering sarcasm’, exactly as the construction of the word suggests. I think Snark is a red herring here: one nonsense word among many made up by Carroll to suit his style, which bears no relation to “snarky”.

  14. Like others have stated I never heard the term snarky used in the UK, but I have a lot of friends who use it here in the US. Sarky on the other hand was used a lot back home, and I still use it.

  15. It has to be an issue with “false positives” from Ngrams – that is, picking up “sarky” as “snarky” (which, interestingly in this very American-biased reply box, is underlined in red, whereas “sarky” isn’t). Ngrams might perhaps be regarded as a little suspect as a linguist’s tool.

    1. Any words underlined in red in a reply box will be underlined by your browser. Not by the box itself. If your browser is set to UK English, then that means it’ll automatically underline anything not in the UK English dictionary it uses, but I don’t generally use spellcheckers because they often get things wrong. It’s better to learn how to spell yourself, as I’ve said to people on other forums who end up with the completely wrong word, as they just told their spellchecker to correct everything automatically. By the way, spellchecker is underlined in red here, as is its plural. I’m using Chrome.

      1. Thanks for the information, avengah. I’m using Chrome too, and was sure I had it on UK settings, and that the underlining was from WordPress.(which is underlined!) But it’s significant that “sarky” is recognized by an American spellchecker and “snarky” isn’t. A lot of English spellings around the world are of course determined by Microsoft US spellcheckers (not underlined for me), as those tend to be default.

  16. Where I come from in the UK Midlands (Staffordshire), narked is also used in the sense of being irritated or annoyed by something or someone in particular: “That really narked me”. If the (possibly dropped?) “s” is significant, I don’t know.

    1. The “s” isn’t dropped – “snarky” is from the Low German “snarken” meaning “to snort”; “narked”, “narky”, “nark” etc. are from “nak”, the Romany for “nose”. Both have to do with noses, but they are otherwise unrelated. The first is dialectic and uncommon in Britain (despite the thrust of this article), while the second is slang and widespread, not just in the Midlands, but in Yorkshire where I come from, and I guess everywhere else in England.

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