Friday, 25 January 2008


Mahendra Singh, author the wonderful blog The Hunting of the Snark, asked about the etymology of snark. I found nothing conclusive, but you might enjoy the ride. Try not to get your bowsprit mixed with your rudder on the way. Ready let's go!

My Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says

imaginary animal invented by 'Lewis Carroll' (C.L. Dodgson) in 'The Hunting of the Snark', 1876.

Is that it? There's gotta be more to it than that! snark meaning "to snort" dates from 1866 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, but I don't know the source of this. This easily predates 1875, when most of the poem was written (at least according to The Life of Lewis Carroll by Florence Becker Lennon, 1962).

Sources agree that snarky, meaning "crotchety, snappish" or "irritable or short-tempered; irascible", is derived from the verb snark "to annoy" or "to nag". The earliest citation for snarky is from Edith Nesbit in 1906.

1906 E. NESBIT Railway Children ii. 49 Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault.

Since words tend to show up in speech before they show up in writing, it is possible that snarky was around when Carroll wrote his poem. Or snark, for which the earliest citation is from 1882.

snark, 2. intr. and trans. To find fault (with), to nag. 
1882 Jamieson’s Sc. Dict. IV. 314/2 To Snark, fret, grumble, or find fault with one. 1904 E. NESBIT Phœnix & Carpet x. 185 He remembered how Anthea had refrained from snarking him about tearing the carpet.

There are two possible derivations for snark. According to Merriam-Webster, snark "to annoy" is perhaps an alternation of nark "to irritate". (More about nark below). The American Heritage Dictionary says of snarky: "From dialectal snark, to nag, from snark, snork, to snore, snort, from Dutch and Low German snorken, of imitative origin."

Fernando Soto, in The Consumption of the Snark and the Decline of Nonsense: A Medico-Linguistic Reading of Carroll’s ‘Fitful Agony’ (in The Carrollian 8) mentions the word snarker "a cinder", as in "The cake's burnt to a snarker" (from The English Dialect Dictionary (vols. V), p. 572).

Mahendra says

It's been long debated how LC came up with the word, it may be a portmanteau of shark & snail, perhaps "flavored" by a (collective) unconscious germanic memory?

There are many Germanic words containing the phonestheme sn- and having to do with the nose. Pokorny connects snorken with Proto-Indo-European *sner- "expressive root of various verbs for making noises". This is the source of German schnarren "to buzz", and also snorkel from German schnarchen "to snore", snarl from Middle Low German snarren, sneer, and perhaps Norn, from Old Norse (as in "the whisperer"). And also Norwegian-Swedish snerka "to snort", Swedish snurka "to groan", Old Norse snǫrgla "to groan", Norwegian-Swedish snarva "to growl, bare one's teeth".

There is also *snu-, a form limited to Germanic languages, and imitative of words connected with the nose. This apparently gives us snot, snout, schnoz, snuffle, sniff, snip, snap, snub, and snatch. To make things even more confusing, snore, snort and sneeze are from PIE *pneu- "to breathe" - Old English fnora and fnēosan. Compare Old Norse fnȳsa "to pant, sniff, snort", Middle High German pfnusen "to pant, sniff, snort, sneeze".

The sn- phonestheme could have influenced Carroll's choice, but unfortunately the poem is silent on the subject of the Snark's nose, and lacks any other sn- words in connection with the Snark (altho the Bandersnatch's jaws "Went savagely snapping around").

The Urban Dictionary says of snark: "Combination of "snide" and "remark". Sarcastic comment(s)." But I'd trust the Urban Dictionary as far as I'd trust a very untrustworthy thing.

Now, nark. This is the other possible source of snark "to annoy", if it's not derived from snorken. Wordorigins has a good history of nark. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1993) says (I'm omitting the first sense because it's "mainly Austral and NZ"):

2 Brit a A police informer or decoy. 1860-.
b A policeman. 1861-.
verb 3 trans. To annoy, exasperate; often in passive 1888-.
4 trans. To stop; mainly in imperative in the phr. nark it. 1889-.
6 intr. To complain, grumble. 1916-.
[From Romany nāk nose.]

Wordorigins points out that the derivation from Romani is problematic, but that it is the most likely one. Romani nāk would be related to Hindi नाक nāk, Prakrit ṇakka, and Sanskrit नर्क narka, all meaning "nose". Probably also Sindhi نَڪُ naku , Kashmiri नाख् nākh, Panjabi ਨੱਕ nakk, Gujarati નાક nāk.

According to Watkins, these are all from Indic *nakka-, an expressive form of PIE *nas- "nose", which makes nark cognate with nose! Compare Sanskrit नस् nas, Latin nāsum, German nüschen "to dig with the snout", English nose, nuzzle, Russian нюхать njuxat' "to snuffle, sniff, smell".

Snarkskii seems to be a Slavic surname, for which the American spelling might be Snarsky.

The Snark Avenue Theatre shows late-night movies in Daniel Pinkwater's novels The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror. "Snarking out" means sneaking out in the middle of the night to watch movies. Also check out Lizard Music - no snarks, but a great book.

Nothing conclusive, so no conclusion.

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."

Update: more snarkian etymology.


mahendra singh said...

Huzzah (times three)! I'm really impressed by your thoroughness, this is all quite fascinating and I might add, far more detailed (and plausible) than almost any of the previously published commentary that I've read on the subject.

Inconclusive, yes, but … so much of the poem is intuitive and oneiric in its inner logic, and I would agree with your indication of a nasal-snortery kind of indo-germanic basis to all this.

It is very likely that all of this etymological mischmasch was subconsciously floating in LC's head , to which he added the conscious, contemporary Victorian connotation of "snark"… and in keeping with his rather secretive artistic habits, later muddying the waters with his post-facto portmanteau snail-shark explanation .

On behalf of the legions of knowledge-hungry Snarquistes world-wide, I thank you, sir! Onwards & upwards, forks & hope at the ready!

Stuart Douglas said...

Yeah, that was interesting stuff John - especially as I'd always assumed that the 'snide and remark' etymology was the obvious one.

goofy said...

Do we have an actual letter from Carroll where he gave the shark-snail explanation, or is it just reported?

mahendra singh said...

Gardner's Annotated Snark mentions the following:
1. Beatrice Hatch's article in the Strand Magazine of April 1898, in which she claimed LC told her of the shark-snail portmanteau.
2. A Mr Jos. Keogh refers to Skeats Concise Etymological Dictionary, 1818, which derives snark from indogermanic roots of sna (to bind), snar (to twist), and snark (to twist). Skeat adds a meaning to snark of bathing or swimming.

I've also written to Mr Doug Howick, who is quite a Snark expert and am awaiting his reply.

Mr Fernando Soto noted to me, on the Yahoo LC discussion board, that he had published an article in the Carrollian in which he determined the root meaning to be pertaining to pigs.

The plot thickens. I think LC would approve!

Cheers! BTW, I'm assuming the moniker of your blog refers to the famous railway guide, right?

goofy said...

"Gardner's Annotated Snark"

I gotta get a copy of that.

I am not aware of Proto-Indo-European *snark "to twist". Pokorny has *sner- "to turn, wind", *sner- "to murmur, grumble" and *sneu "to turn, bind, attach" (see here). But I don't have Skeats' dictionary.

The bathing or swimming sense is found in *sneh2- "to swim", as in "natation".

The name of my blog comes from that "desperate wrong-doer" in A Tangled Tale.

Swimming Kangaroo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Swimming Kangaroo said...

Nice blog! Thanks for the grammar lesson on Write Wow, btw. If you ever want to be a guest blogger about grammar or word issues, let me know.

I especially enjoyed your information about the origins of "snarky", which has been one of our family's favorite words since I used it to describe our younger daughter's attitude after a day at the beach. She claimed it wasn't a word so in the twelve years since we've taken great delight in pointing out every instance of the word we could find.