Snark vs. Sarcasm, Vol. 17, Issue 39

The clever insult replaced the gallant compliment.

- Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, from their excellent Misia: The Life of Misia Sert

Dear Etiquetteer:

Can you explain to me if there's a difference between snark and sarcasm? Maybe I've lived overseas too long and dislike sarcasm as a result, which to me is an excuse to say something nasty to or about someone or something masked as humor, but snark seems to be acceptable by many around me as sharp wit with city edge humor.

Dear Snarked:

Your query had more than a whiff of hair-splitting about it, so Etiquetteer felt the need to define exactly the terms "snark" and “sarcasm” as well as “snide." Amusingly, Dictionary provided only the original definition of “snark:" "a mysterious, imaginary animal." How often we forget that it was the late Lewis Carroll who created this term in his nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark!”* Urban Dictionary provides the definition "Combination of “snide" and "remark". Sarcastic comment(s),” and defines snide as "a mean, snobbish, or spiteful remark." So at least according to Urban Dictionary, snark contains sarcasm.

Sarcasm, according to Dictionary, is “harsh or bitter derision or irony” or “a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark.” Urban Dictionary is franker: “The ability to insult idiots without them realizing it.”

So, tossing all these definitions together, Etiquetteer discerns the difference between snark and sarcasm thus. If sarcasm is the ability to insult idiots without them realizing it, snark is the ability to insult others who will realize it and will a) appreciate the effort made and/or b) respond in kind in a perpetual snarkfest, making them a worthy opponent in a battle no one should have to fight.

Long story short, Etiquetteer sees both terms as insults delivered with irony, which often leads them to be mistaken for wit, which is defined as “clever or apt humor.” So Etiquetteer would encourage aspiring snarkers to give up now. Because let's face it, if you're not the late Dorothy Parker, you'll never get it right.

Etiquetteer pines for the days when the well-turned compliment was more common, and more valued, than the snappy comeback. For instance, Etiquetteer was recently asked by an old friend’s new lover what his favorite flower was. Not knowing, Etiquetteer responded “You are always his favorite flower!” We don’t have nearly enough of This Sort of Thing these days.


*Decades later this was surrealistically translated into French by the Last of the Bright Young Things, Nancy Cunard, as “La Chasse au Snark."