The Hunting of the Snark

A recent tweet pointed me to an article entitled 14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed. Being by nature more curious than a cat who works as a detective for The Olde Curiosity Shoppe Investigations Agency, I had to click through.[1]

Snark shirt

Sarcastic? Moi?

The one that caught my eye – or maybe internal ear – was the Snark, also referred to in the article as the Percontation Point or Irony Mark. Prior to this, I had two reference points for the word snark; as an animal in a Lewis Carroll poem or as a noun for a snide, sarcastic remark. It also forms the base for the adjective snarky, which means “cutting, critical, and/or irritable.”

Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark, first appeared in 1876 and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Carroll with inventing it in the sense that it is used for a mythical beast. However, Carroll’s alter ego, Charles Dodgson, was not only a first-class mathematician and logician (he got a First in Math from Oxford) but a master of the English language. It therefore seems unlikely that he was unaware of the word snark already being around prior to his using it in his poem.

Hunting of the Snark cover

Book Cover 1876

The first citation for snark, as a verb, appears in the OED as being in 1866, meaning “to snore or to snort.” It can be traced even further back as being a variation on the verb snork, which is defined as;

To snort or grunt; to breathe noisily. Said esp. of horses and pigs.

Ultimately, it’s derived from Middle Dutch[2] or Middle Low German[3] snorken, to snort. Regardless, it doesn’t take a huge leap to move from “the snorting sound of animals” to “a mythical animal in a poem.”

The use of the backward question mark to represent irony apparently comes from the 19th century and more specifically a French poet by the name of Alcanter de Brahm. The irony is that using an Irony Mark to mark “irony” is ironic! If you have to bring attention to the fact that a sentence is ironic, you might as well have just written a non-ironic comment in the first place.

Prior to this, the symbol had a brief outing as the percontation point in the 17th century, which was not used to mark irony but as a way of indicating that a sentence didn’t have a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. Thus, you would use a regular “?” for the sentence “Did it rain yesterday?” but the percontation[4] mark for “How do you fix a broken clock؟” Not surprisingly, this didn’t catch on, leaving the quirky little symbol open from being revived as the Irony Mark.

The current appellation of the Snark presumably arose from the idea that a snarky remark is sometimes made with a little snort. However, it’s unlikely to catch on simply for one reason: there’s no key for it on the keyboard! Sure, if you have a full keyboard with a numeric keypad AND you have Unicode AND you type ALT+2E2E, then maybe you can get the ؟ symbol – but even then, not everyone else can read it on their computers.

[1] Those of you who have not yet met Detective Mittens, the Crime-Solving Cat, should click on this link to experience the surreal humor.

[2] Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects that were spoken and written between 1150 and 1500.

[3] Middle Low German is a language descended from Old Saxon and the ancestor of modern Low German. It was spoken from about 1100 to 1600.  All these come from what’s called the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, dating back to the Iron Age.

[4] Percontation is an interesting word because it comes from the Latin percontare, meaning “to inquire or interrogate,” ultimately from percontus, which means “by using a punting pole!” The idea is to test something by poking it with a stick. We can track it to the ancient Greek word  κοντός, a boat pole. In the UK, you may hear in Norfolk talk about using a quant to propel a boat; it’s from the same Greek root.


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