Snark Hunt

The search for the true meaning

Sometimes, dictionaries just don’t get it. this one will define a word one way; that one will define the same word another way. C’mon, people! It’s not like anyone’s depending on you or anything! If that sounded “snarky,” you’d better check your definition, because that’s one of the words dictionaries don’t agree on.

As it’s used most of the time nowadays, “snarky” means sarcastic or irreverent. But you couldn’t prove that by the journalist’s bible, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which defines “snarky” as “touchy, short-tempered, irritable, etc.” That’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition, too, though it has a second definition: “sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent manner <snarky lyrics>.” The New Oxford American Dictionary swings the other way, listing “sharply critical; cutting; snide” as the first definition and “cranky; irritable” as the second. In fact, “snarky” was born “irritable” in British English, and gained its “sarcasm” here in the States.

“Snark” and “snarky” probably derived from “snort,” which has been used for hundreds of years to indicate something spoken with contempt or derision. (“I never read dictionaries,” she snorted.) It’s not far from derision to sarcasm.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.