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The most dangerous word in journalism

It’s not smarm. It’s not snark, either.


Miles Klee


Journalists, politicians, bloggers, and critics are all facing the same crisis of tone. It seems that people, especially people online, where all the stuff happens, are either too mean, or too nice. They’re deliberately divisive, or they cynically play the victim. It comes down, in one reading, to a matter of bitter snark versus oily smarm.  

On, a snark-based Internet news site, one noble reporter is defending his right to be snarky. His reasoning: Snark wards off smarm, and smarm is the enemy of truth. Why don’t we just call those smarmy opinions “wrong”? Be quiet, I’m inventing buzzwords, and here’s my latest: snarmk. (Call me whenever you get a chance, Oxford English Dictionary staff).   

What the hell is snarmk, I hear you ask wearily. You’ve taken a mournful swallow of coffee; you’re settling in for a lengthy exegesis. You’re fairly certain that your constipated boss will be in the bathroom for a while. Well, it’s simple. With the long-running war of snark versus smarm raging at full tilt today, it’s time we mashed both terms into an arbitrary digital term of our own. 

I actually think @tomscocca has created a new genre of snark mixed with smarm with this piece — smark? Snarm?

— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) December 5, 2013

Snarmk is dominating our conversations, and I don’t want it to.

You know those opinions that are wrong? That’s snarmk. Snarmk is precisely what’s wrong with our cultural dialogue, precisely because it’s everywhere, doing everything, and also it’s difficult to pronounce. But it’s short and punchy and a great play in Scrabble, so keep that under your hat. Snarmk! I would screencap and Twitter-embed some examples if my snarmky editor didn’t have me on a tight deadline.

Historians differ on when snarmk infected human language. Some hold that it was Joan of Arc, who once told a legion of whiny French soldiers that they were free to desert if they wished, as it was no skin off her nose, and the only guy who would care was “whatsisname … God.” Others accuse Thomas Jefferson of employing snarmk to win a bet with James Madison, though conflicting reports suggest that Jefferson had instead devised the very first “neg.”

“Hmm,” you’re no doubt saying, or humming. “Snarmk sounds a little bit like sarcasm.” Boy, what an idiot you are! Sarcasm is nothing like snarmk in that they are completely different—i.e., not the same. Anyone still confused can ask for clarification from New York Times media columnist David Carr.

Still working on whether to go snark or smarm on @tomscocca‘s grand bit of inquiry. #smark?

— david carr (@carr2n) December 5, 2013

Naturally, the question we are left with is how the world will look when it’s completely overrun by snarmk, which, as I’ve explained, it already is. The short answer is: there is no answer. The longer answer is that I don’t know, man. Snarmk is too volatile, too edgy, too zeitgeist-defining to pin down, even for me, the guy explaining it.   

I fear, however, that the rise of snarmk will mean the evacuation of all meaning. You’ll find yourself reading an opinion piece online and wondering what the author is blathering about, what he actually believes, whether he thinks he’s being funny, and why anyone pays him to type this garbage. When that happens, be careful and take heed—you may gaze long into the snarmk, but the snarmk also gazes into you.    

Photo by Geoff/Flickr  

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