“Snark” vs. “Smarm”

This piece on Politico delighted me to no end. To summarize: BuzzFeed’s new book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, said that he wouldn’t post any negative reviews on the site. This sparked a controversy among several prominent writers and intellectuals over the merits of only-positive writing vs. critical writing, with the former being labeled “smarm” and the latter, “snark.” Without going into the core argument, I feel, as a grammarian and writer, I must address their misuse of the words “smarm” and “snark.”

Gawker’s Tom Scocca wrote that smarm is “a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves. … Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”

I think he might be just a little off. The best definition I’ve found comes from, of course, the Urban Dictionary: “cloying, over-ingratiating, oleaginous (“oily”), close, and over-familiar.” While there is certainly some overlap between Scocca’s definition and UD’s, they are not the same. Scocca’s “smarm” is genuinely nice (if vapid); real “smarm,” as I think most people use the word, is not actually nice. It’s the “niceness” that greaseball players use to get into girls’ pants or used-car salesmen use to part you with your money.

On the other hand, “snark” is never really defined in this debate, other than “meanness” or “critical thinking,” depending on the writer. That’s also wrong. “Snark” is an amalgam of “snide” and “remark,” and basically means “sarcasm.” So all snark is mean, but not all meanness is snark. Critical thinking can be delivered with snark, but so can pure stupidity.

Which brings me to my  point: the people embroiled in this debate are all writers, some are considered intellectuals, and yet they don’t seem to grasp the actual meanings of the words they are arguing about.

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