Thursday, August 5, 2010

All you need is snark

Gosh, there seems to be nothing on the TV but re-runs this summer …

The preternaturally alert reader will instantly recognize the decor of this panel as a quintessentially English bit of inkery lifted whole from the Yellow Submarine, that snarkalicious confection crafted by Messers Dunnings, Coates, Edelmann et alia. Their Anglo-Canadian-Teutonic vision of the archetypical English garden party, Pepperland, is shown here being hijacked by a band of desperate Snark Hunters in need of shelter from the heavy weather of Fit the Fifth.

In truth, there is little to recommend in this Fit to anyone in need of some jollies to lighten the burden of another long day working for the Man and all that. F5, as some Snarkistanis dub it, is a place where there is a gnashing of teeth and a smiting of thighs in the very best tradition of the sadomasochistic hallucinations and delusions of St. Anthony and his Victorian spiritual descendants, those lecturers at certain educational institutions who were condemned to the spiritual tortures of instructing the Boschian progeny of the upper classes in all matters animal, vegetable and mineral.

As proof positive of all of the above, let us note that Lewis Carroll, a mild-mannered man noted for his personal gentleness, saw fit to end this Fit with a semi-Swiftian comment upon all of the above. This novel friendship between the Beaver and the Butcher is cemented not by the altruistic bonds of selfless love but by the grotesque imperatives of Fear and Loathing!

You old cynic, Mr. Carroll! You’ve been hobnobbing too much with that old boojum-lover Mr. C.L. Dodgson, whose years of teaching at Christ Church had taught him to regard his young charges as at worst, nasty, brutish and short, and at best, nasty, brutish and short from the right sort of families.

Which is why this illustrator thought it might brighten up the place a bit if we had a little bit of Pepperland and the Fab Four smuggled in to do the honors for the Jubjub’s Song which closes this Fit. Come on, Messers Dodgson and Carroll, it’s not as bad as all that, all you need is love!

Over at Bradshaw of the Future, the etymology of the Snark has once again reared up its translucent head! John notes that certain otherwise respectable dictionaries trace the derivation to a portmanteau of snail and shark; the entire theory being further traced to Beatrice Hatch's remarks in the Strand Magazine (April 1898, pgs 413-423, as referenced in Gardner's Snark).

But John, very sensibly, refuses to let the matter rest there … is there no better source for this, preferably from the Admirable Carroll's very own pen? Any snarkologists in possession of the full facts (come on, Byron … Doug?) are urged to contact BOTF and put the matter to rest. For me, the theory has always been a mere excuse for some of my usual inkery-pokery … I think Doug Howick's snark'd warrior long ago made this etymology a bit suspect.

I've never read any other reference to Carroll mentioning that particular portmanteau except Gardner's and my own bound copies of the entire Strand for that year were pilfered long ago … curse those rural Virginia steampunks!


  1. There's actually two questions: 1) is it a portmanteau? and 2) if it is a portmanteau, what is it a portmanteau of?

    There is at least some circumstantial evidence that Carroll coined it based on snail/shark (Hatch's letter). But there is no evidence, as far as I can see, that it was coined based on snake/shark. And yet it is the snake/shark origin that a lot of books repeat.

  2. I have never thought it to be a portmanteau and the illo that Doug unearthed really is proof that the word prexisted. I think the etymology that you unearthed a while back further confirms that.

  3. Yes, but just because the word pre-existed doesn't mean that Carroll couldn't have coined it anew for his poem. It is a possibility.

    Having said that I tend to think that he got the word from the pre-existing verb which was in use at the time, and made up the portmanteau explanation retroactively. But I have no evidence of that.

  4. Yes, I get your point … which sort of plants the seed of a new and fruitful branch of etymology … Nonsense Etymology, in which words have derivations which might cancel each other out and hence, they (and the entire linguistic matrix they inhabit) vanishes into thin air, like the Red King's dream.