A new novel by Heidi Julavits just arrived at the office, which reminded me of the disservice she did to the English language back in 2003, with her bleating, hand-wringing essay about the insidious evils of a thing called "snark," a "disorder" irreverent humor that was "infiltrating" the writing world:
... I don’t know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications...
At the time the essay was published (and during the heated debates that followed it) I thought: "Poor Heidi. She thinks it matters whether she understands what a critic does or doesn't believe. While some people are hostile for hostility's sake or witty for wit's sake—and I fail to see the problem with the latter—could it be that she and certain critics just disagree about what deserves hostility? And it seems embarrassingly self-centered to take simple disagreements, blow them out of proportion, and diagnose them as some cultural 'disorder.'"
I thought the word would have its faddish moment and then disappear (maybe once some of those delicate flowers, so easily bruised by this "snark" business, aged a little and toughened up). But no. The word has stuck around like a mope, and become a conveniently lazy way of dismissing sharp criticism by staking out an ill-defined moral high ground.
And that's the most insidious thing about this word "snark"—the implication that it is a character flaw, a moral failing. If I criticize X and you respond by calling me "snarky," you're not saying I'm wrong about X. You're simply dodging the argument while slipping in an ad hominem attack.
People only use "snarky" to deflect criticism that a) has enough humor to sting (i.e., is successful) and b) points at something the person crying "snark" holds dear, or above criticism. If I'm talking to a local actor, for example, and I criticize Michael Bay with an irreverent joke, I'm a good guy, just tellin' it like it is. But if I criticize a performance by that actor's friend with an irreverent joke, I'm being snarky, disrespectful, a bad guy. "Snark" is relative—a sloppy word* for a cowardly rhetorical trick that attempts to dismiss an argument without engaging it.
Apparently, "snark" is here to stay. But I hope these fingers never type it again.
*Before it came to mean "sharp, humorous criticism about something I hold dear," snark meant "irritable" or "short-tempered" (etymologically derived from the Swedish snarka, "to snort").