Brain Pickings

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

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 (public library), 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.)

Complement The Hunting of the Snark with Carroll’s four rules for digesting information, his tips on dining etiquette, his entertaining letter of apology for standing a friend up, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

Published January 16, 2012




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