Anyone know what this is?
It’s a “snark”: a punctuation mark proposed – if sources are to believed, as early as 1580 by the inventive English printer Henry Denham – to indicate the presence of irony in a sentence.*
In fact, Denham originally proposed it for use with rhetorical questions; subsequent observers lobbied for its revival to mark ironic passages, and many now insist that social media is crying out for such a device. But without success: despite four-and-a-quarter centuries of misunderstandings, dud punchlines and needless offence, there’s still no real demand for a mark that resolves, once and for all, whether you were being serious the other night on Twitter.
The smiley 🙂 is a useful prophylactic when addressing a mass electronic audience – some people append it to almost every tweet, just to be on the safe side – but its intent is to really signal friendliness, a lack of hostility, in what might be construed as dissent or criticism. Irony is a bit beyond it: it really just stands in for the smile you adopt when edging your way towards the bar in a crowded pub.
My favourite definition of irony – one not too different, in fact, from Collins’s – comes from the days when the Sunday edition of the Tribune had its own style guide, before they were merged five years ago. Aimed more – I like to think – at writers than editors, it ran as follows:
ironically avoid when what you mean is strangely, coincidentally or amusingly. Irony is a deliberate incongruity between what is said and what is meant
And that definition suggests the explanation for why the snark has never caught on. A few years ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Henry Hitchings suggested that the reason for its unpopularity is that “internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation” – as witnessed by recent suggestions that the use of the full stop in social media is perceived as “aggressive”. But, in this case, there’s more to it.
The central point of irony is the ambiguity: the uncertainty as to what is being said. It is set as a rhetorical test on the audience: its effect relies on the fact that the reader is rewarded for choosing the correct interpretation. To indicate its presence beyond doubt, with punctuation, is to close off all alternatives and to deny the reader that moment. Marking the presence of irony has the effect – ironically – of removing it from the sentence altogether.
* Thanks, Buzzfeed, for the image