Brain Pickings

The Origin of Snark: Original Illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” 1876

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Snark is something we encounter — and possibly employ — daily, its permeating ubiquity and cultural givenness having eclipsed any sort of curiosity about its history and origins. But while snark might be a weapon from the modern hipster’s arsenal, the linguistic heritage of the word itself dates back many generations — to 1874, to be precise. Its first recorded occurrence in language is in the title of Lewis Carroll‘s nonsensical poem The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits), which he penned at the age of 42, nine years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Cue in some favorite and little-known illustrations for his masterpiece.)

The poem chronicles “with infinite humour the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature” — the Snark. The original edition, published in 1876 by Macmillan, featured intricate black-and-white artwork by English historical genre painter Henry Holiday — a collaboration rumored to have taken place largely through a correspondence of letters between Holiday and Carroll. (Cue in this morning’s famous correspondence.)

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