The “sarky”/”snarky” conundrum

My post on snarky elicited many comments from British people, the tenor of which can be gleaned from the first two posted:

Jan: 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.

Cameron: 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.
First of all, I looked up antiopdean in the OED so I saved you the trouble. “Of or pertaining to the opposite side of the world; esp. Australasian.”
Second, I believe Jan and all the others who say they have never heard snarky in the U.K. until recently (if at all). Nevertheless, the word was in currency there in the mid-twentieth century.  In addition to the 1913 Vaizey and 1976 Crossman quotes in the original post, the OED cites Eileen Coxhead’s 1953 novel Midlanders: “I’ve known you were the soul of kindness, under that snarky way.”

Poking around on Google Books, I also found this:

 “There’s no need to be snarky,” said Sally clearly. “What’d you say?” Daphne stopped looking bored and stood up straight. “I said you didn’t have to be snarky. I’m not a kid.” “Are you not?” said Daphne, trying to imitate Sally’s accent.

The quote is from the 1973 novel No Place for Love, by Joan Lingard. Ms. Lingard writes on her website:  “I was born in Edinburgh, in the very heart of its old town, the Royal Mile, but when I was two years’ old I went to live in Belfast and stayed there until I was 18. It was there that I grew up, went to school, made my first friends, learned to read and write. Inevitably, then, Belfast and Northern Ireland have had a strong influence on my writing.”

In Captain Cat (1960), Robert Holles writes,  “My mother was snarky that day because my father had gone off early in a coach to some place about two hundred miles away, for a pigeon race.” (According to Wikipedia, Holles [1926-1999] “was the son of a sergeant major, and enlisted in the British army as a boy soldier at 14. He served in Korea as a sergeant with the 1st battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and saw action during the Battle of Imjin in 1951, one of ‘The Glorious Glosters’ greatest battle honours.”)

Finally, in Games of Chance (1965), by the British novelist Thomas Hinde, one can read, “‘No need to get snarky,’ I heard him say. ‘Just stop asking,’ I shouted. ‘Stop, d’you hear. Stop.'”

Now for sarky. First, I can confirm that the word has not reached the U.S.  The OED defines it as “sarcastic” and notes, “Widely used amongst schoolchildren.” The first citation is from a 1912 letter in which D.H. Lawrence asks his correspondent, “Why are you so sarky?” Then, in 1924, Hugh de Sélincourt (an English author) wrote in Cricket Match, “He says it sarky-like and sneering.”

Giving some credence to Cameron’s antipodean theory, and suggesting that even by the ’30s, the term wasn’t universally familiar, is a quote (not cited by the OED) from The Jasmine Farm (1934), by Elizabeth von Arnim, an Australian-born British novelist: “‘Don’t be sarky,’ she at once cut him short. ‘Sarky?’ was all that, pulled up in his stride, he could find to say. ‘Sarcastic. Thinking you’re more than a match for me, when I shouldn’t be surprised if it was the other way about.'”

(Query to readers: is “the other way about” a Britishism, an Australianism, or merely an archaicism?)

My feeling is that, as Cameron says, the original, British meaning of snarky was “nasty, irritable, unfriendly.” I am also with him on the idea, in that its current use, on both sides of the Atlantic and in antipodean regions as well, it is a portmanteau–combining not only nasty and sarcastic, but snide for good measure. The first use of this connotation I have been able to find is still the 1970 Billboard review quoted in the original post.

I await your comments.

20 responses to “The “sarky”/”snarky” conundrum

  1. I am from Northern England consider snarky to be a word in everyday usage meaning to be verbally mean and rude to someone. I suppose I had always associated slightly with “snide” as you mention above. I had never considered it might be related to sarky; to me they have completely different meanings.

  2. British, in 40s and never heard of snarky!!

  3. Isn’t this a strange little mystery? I do associate “sarky” with school and with giving attitude to someone in authority; talking back, I suppose. I don’t get a sense of snidery (probably not even a word) from it, so I can see how the two words could be quite different. In fact, I wonder if the reason I’ve never heard anyone use the word “snarky” may be that we’ve always just said “snide” instead, as in “don’t be so snide”, or “he just sits at the back of the class making snide remarks”.

    To expand: I feel that “sarky” would be rude and sarcastic, but at least it would be to someone’s face. “Snide” (and therefore possibly by extension “snarky”, it’s probably down to people who use it to decide!) seems bitchier, more cowardly and less honest somehow. So in that sense I feel a subtle difference between “sarky” and “snarky”, but it’s interesting that Lynette says they’re completely different; even if the connotations are the same as they are to me, which may not be the case, the difference may be more pronounced to someone who actually uses both.

  4. Here’s yet another iteration for you to factor in: my Irish fiancé (late 50s, Dublin) uses NARKY to mean “in a bad mood,” sometimes as a result of being tired or overworked. (Sorry I was narky yesterday, honey; it was a long day.) I, an American, might use cranky or crabby instead. Re sarky/snarky, I’ve never heard of the former but the latter is definitely a part of my vocabulary.🙂

    • theholyfatherreilly

      Hi, I’m from Dublin and have to tell you that “narky” has nothing to do with “sarky”. Snarky is a word I never heard of until now although I accept that the Dublin word “sarky” may well be “snarky” in Belfast and Edinburgh. “Narky” means having a go at someone, close to nagging perhaps but has nothing to with “sarky” which is rightly pointed out as being related to ill-tempered, bad mouthed, sassing back…..not sarcastic at all although that may well come into it further down the line!

  5. [Query to readers: is “the other way about” a Britishism, an Australianism, or merely an archaicism]

    I hadn’t heard “the other way about” but you I find that in the US, people tend to say, “the other way around” while people in the UK use, “the other way round.” Perhaps you explored this in an earlier post before I started reading along though.

  6. “the other way about” – as a Brit, I’d guess it is an archaicism; I think most people would say “the other way round”. I can’t speak for for those whose feet are opposite to ours. (Though it turns out that only 4% of land is actually anti-podal to land, according to Wikipedia).

  7. “Sarky”; similar to “funky,” from “funk,” but a shortening instead of a lengthening.

  8. Here in Canada I have only ever heard “snarky” used. As I learned it from my parents that would place its original usage by them from between the 1930s and the 1970s.

  9. All well and good, so far as it goes,
    but who then was the “Sally Clearly”
    who seems to have started it all?

  10. British (London/South-East), borin in early 1970s, I use all of these with varying levels of frequency: sarky (sarcastic), snarky (bitchy), narky (bad-tempered) and, just in case you didn’t have enough lines of enquiry open, narked (in a bad mood).

    I don’t recall ever having heard “the other way about” – as cgodkin said, “the other way round” is how most people would phrase it here.

    • I’m also from London and born in the late 70s and the only thing I’d say is that snarky is something I’d use to indicate a less personal focus than bitchy – I wouldn’t snark at or about someone, but I could respond to them in a snarky manner.

  11. Note that Dave Bath, in his comment to the original post (October 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm), provided some support for my “antipodean theory” by pointing out that he’s been hearing “snarky” in Oz all his life.

  12. Snarky is one of those words which just sounds right; I’ve used it in the past and have heard it used. When you hear a word and instantly know what it means (which in this case I think is true) then to me it is a word.

    The same is true with Sarky. Definitely been in use for a long time and to me it’s a slightly more jokey way of implying sarcasm. Whereas to say “Are you being sarcastic” implies irritation, ” are you being sarky” sounds more matey and jokey. Of course, as with all words, it’s the way you say ’em…

  13. Just talked to my cousin in Durham England and she has never heard the word snarky, neither has my mum.

    • It’s not a commonly used word (and neither is sarky), but it is used. Then again, there are plenty of words in use in Durham that aren’t used outside of NE England!

  14. I’m I young northern Brit and hear both of the words used reasonably often – sarky/sarcy meaning using sarcastic language, being snarky meaning giving lots of snippy little snide or mean comments about things (a trait of someone in a bad mood). I guess like Jamie says, the latter is linked to the word narky.
    Someone who is narky will be snarky?

  15. I am an old Northern Brit. I think that knowledge of snarky may be related to internet use: I see the word often on US web discussions. Snippy, by the way, I’ve never ever seen or heard in a British context: only ever US. Sarky is used often enough over here. Narky and narked are commonly used, but aren’t the same as snarky (can you be snarked?).

    Snide, now there’s a word with an interesting backstory…

  16. I am southern English, in my fifties. I never heard of ‘snarky’ before it started popping up on American web sites. I assumed it was an American ‘decorated’ form of our ‘sarky’, like their ‘persnickety’ for our ‘pernickety’. It now turns out it existed in Br. E. after all, so I suppose it is a northernism.

  17. “The other way about”: one of those phrases that, while not used, would be understood. I’m wondering if it might be nautical: boats can “go about”.

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