Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The snarky epidemic

Merriam-Webster's web site defines snarky, adj., as "crotchety, snappish," and dates the word to 1906.

We have had 97 years to get used to this word.

So why is everyone using it all of a sudden? It may be antique, but frankly, I'd scarcely heard of it till the past year or so.

Now it's showing up everywhere. Look at this chart I made, which tracks the frequency of the word's appearance over the last ten years in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Why snarky? Why now?

For some reason, in my mind I associate the word with snarky New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, but she apparently has not used it since April 1, 1998: "Perhaps the White House spinners thought the gamy, earthy atmosphere of the bush was just the place to convince puritanical and snarky reporters of the most basic truth: Nature must take its course."

But certainly Dowd's colleagues at the Times are still under the snarky spell. On March 9, 2003, Caryn James wrote of critical reaction to Salman Rushdie's latest book: "The reviews ranged from respectfully disappointed to dismissive, and were followed by a deluge of snarky tabloid stories."

And Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, in a December 29, 2002 look back at the year, "Greeting-card sentimentality and snarky, knee-jerk irony proliferated with abandon this year."

The snarky domain is not limited to the East Coast, of course. Last February, San Francisco Chronicle television columnist Tim Goodman even used snarky in a provocative headline: "The Snarky Pants just won't fit."

And the word has moved out to the heartland. It showed up yesterday in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about the Oscars, by Kathy Flanigan: "Tightened security did its best to subdue the always snarky Joan Rivers."

The newest sighting is in a letter by one Sarah Graham Miller to today's Hartford Courant about the scandal surrounding Waterbury, CT's former mayor, Philip Giordano: "Giordano thought he had it in the bag. He was snarky and smarmy in the press, but had nothing to say on the issues."

The last time I can remember something like this happening was in about 1986, when everyone I knew was going around saying, "This is true." But maybe that was just one group of disaffected teenagers in Tennessee.

I've been hoping Elizabeth Smart would start a similar fad with the phrase "Thou sayest" (cf. John 18:37), which is what she said to the cop who asked her if she was who she was. It's a nice, solid-sounding phrase. But so far, no fad.

I predict Donald Rumsfeld will soon amend his dismissal of our friends across the Atlantic to read: Snarky Old Europe.

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