Rocking the snark

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Today's Doonesbury:

This is actually a re-run of a strip from 1/8/2013, and not everyone got it then:

Apologies for the non-sequitur, but in today’s Doonesbury strip a character uses the phrase “to rock the snark”. Does anyone know what this phrase means?

Nobody answered the question on that 2013 comment thread, but we're here to offer lexicographic help to those who may still be puzzled a year later.

You can probably infer a meaning for rock in this example — Kara McGrath, "#manicuremonday diy: 3 easy ways to get a flirty v-day mani!", Seventeen 2/10/2014:

Valentine's Day falls on a Friday this year, which means 1.) It's timed perfectly for an ultimate group date or girl's night out and 2.) You can get away with rocking a fun pink-and-red mani all week long! Don't worry—you don't have to spend hours tediously drawing out hearts and kisses with your nail art pens. These three new stickers and topcoats will make your V-day manicure a total breeze.

And by the same author: "the easiest way to rock the matte lip trend"; "Just because it's cold outside doesn't mean you can't keep rocking a pretty floral print!"; "Try rocking a leather jumper dress with a fun blouse this holiday season!"

The sense seems to be something like "to wear or display conspicuously and proudly".

This usage has been around for a while — the earliest example I've found is in some Kanye West lyrics from 2007, but I'm pretty sure I heard it before that:

(Kanye West, "Everything I am", released 2007) I never rock a mink coat in the winter time like Killa Cam / Or rock some mink boots in the summertime like

I found the exact phrase "rock the snark" in a Livejournal comment from 6/23/2007:

*snort* Nine always did rock the snark; you've captured his voice perfectly.

I suppose that this might have been a semi-coherent echo of the Rock the Vote organization, which has been around since 1990; in that organization's name, and in other phrases like "rock your world", rock means something more like "impact strongly".

In any case, rock = "display" starts (?) showing up in teen and gossip magazines by 2008:

(Seventeen, 9/25/2008) Creating the Sarah Palin wig for Tina Fey (who played Palin in the sketch) was practically just as complicated! According to the New York Times, a wig requires "a hairdresser, a team of wig makers, colorists and a pound of human hair" plus 40-50 hours to make (and we thought we spent a lot of time doing our hair)! According to the article, the Palin wig was a combination of a "French twist with a '60s bouffant kind of thing, and bangs." Hmm… maybe we should start rocking this hairstyle at school?

And the usage seems to have gone viral recently.

I was interested to see that a recent (10/15/2013) Cosmopolitan feature "7 Absolutely Essential Tips For Pulling Off Dark Lipstick" was republished in Seventeen under the headline "7 Tips for Rocking Dark Lipstick". But my theory that Cosmo's older audience might have been put off by an invitation to "rock" something is clearly wrong: back in 2011, Cosmo wrote about "The Color Everyone's Rocking This Season"; and "Rocking Wedges the Right Way" appeared last August.

White guys can sometimes rock stuff as well:

(2010) Huey Lewis is rocking some righteous pinstripes. "If Huey wins this," emcee Tom Dreesen said, "he'll give those pants back to the lady he got them from."

(2013) My dad is way ahead of the curve he has been rocking ass cleavage for years.

(2013) Always thrilling to see two characters meet in a flashback, and putting time-crossed Desmond together with physicist Daniel Faraday was A) awesome, and B) perfectly allowed the writers to establish a little science behind the time travel they were about to dive into. Suddenly the purple sky, the electromagnetic phenomena and the Island started to make sense. A little. Plus, Faraday is rocking some righteous hair.

 Update — Ben Zimmer surveyed the history of transitive rock, and especially the phrase "rock the mic", in "When Did We First 'Rock the Mic'?", NYT On Language 7/9/2010, and "Rocking the English Language", Word Routes 7/9/2010. He suggests that in examples like this quote from Grandmaster Flash,

Cowboy rocked the crowd, Creole rocked the flow, Mel rocked the entire English language, Ness rocked the style, Rahiem rocked the ladies, and I rocked the turntables harder than ever.

an appropriate gloss is something like "to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance". (See Ben's comment below for more.)

At some point, "handle effectively" sense morphed into the contemporary usage that I've glossed as "to wear or display conspicuously and proudly", and Ben's OED update glosses as "to wear, esp. with panache; to display, flaunt, or sport (as a personally distinctive style, accessory, possession, etc.)" — though I guess it's still true that someone rocking a hairdo is "using or wielding it effectively, with style and assurance".

I should have known to check the OED!




  1. richardelguru said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    Is Ben Folds Rockin' the Suburbs from 2001 a similar usage?

  2. Carl said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    See the song C.R.E.A.M. by Wu Tang clan for antedate:

  3. Mara K said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    @richard it's probably a pun, since it's an album of rock music.

  4. mollymooly said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    I wasn't aware of this sense; I would naively have interpreted Doonesbury's "rock the snark” as an explicit allusion to "rock the vote". Perhaps there is some connection with verb "rock up" in the sense "show up, arrive" [at a place, esp. unannounced], which I first noticed in Australia in 2004, and can antedate to 1990 in South Africa via Google Books.

  5. AB said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    There's a Soul Train video from the 80s where the host asks "how you rock your hat?" and the reply is: "I sport it fresh, homes."

  6. James said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    I think "Rockin' the Suburbs" is more like "Rock the Casbah", which is an older meaning (1982).

  7. olives said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    Speaking as a milennial who's surprised to hear this usage of the word is news – Mark Liberman's definition is pretty close: "to wear or display conspicuously and proudly". There's a bit more to it though, in that whatever a person is "rocking" is generally something that most people would feel awkward or uncomfortable doing. The implication is that they are knowledgeable about the fact that most people consider something to be unusual / inappropriate for the circumstance, and they've decided to do it intentionally and proudly anyway, in a way that made it seem like they were actually en pointe* stylistically.

    The "rocking ass cleavage" comment is meant as a joke (or at least somewhat facetiously) because of this implication, since most people sporting a plumber's crack aren't doing it intentionally and proudly, but simply because they aren't aware of it. "Rocking" tends to be more about bucking trends and standards than defying social norms of decency and cleanliness. You can say sincerely that someone was rocking a polka dot suit; it would be much more difficult to say that someone was rocking greasy skin and hair.

    * am I eggcorning this?

  8. Anonymous Howard said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    I'm pretty sure rappers have been rocking the mic, confidently displaying their freestyle skills, since the early 80s. There's a dozen more examples on RapGenius. I'd guess that there is a direct line between the sense of prowess involved in "rocking my baby" and the expert ability in this sort of use.

    That's all a bit vague and guessing though, isn't it.

  9. ultraviolet said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    I have seen this usage of "rock" meaning "wear" a lot earlier than 2007 in Vibe magazine, I suspect in the late 90's. If only I had saved those magazines, I could tell you when…

  10. olives said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    P.S. I interpret the "Rock the Vote" organization name usage of "rock" the same way – the organization's intent was to make voting the "cool" thing to do, at a time when many people, especially young people, had concluded their vote didn't matter very much and everything was decided with or without them. One can "rock" the vote by acting like it's cool to express political opinions by voting, when a decent percent of the population considers it a fool's errand.

  11. edith2789 said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    I'm not a native English speaker (nor a native snark speaker, for that matter) but to me in this case "rocking the X" means the person is displaying/doing X *particularly well*. FWIW, I never really understood "rock the vote" and always thought it was a bit contrived, as if the campaign desperately wanted to shoehorn a ~cool~ phrase in so as to appeal to a younger demographic.

  12. Philip W said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    Glad Carl found that one… My sense (which I'm having a hard time confirming on the spot) is that this usage is extremely pervasive in rap lyrics, going back well beyond 2007.

  13. Mark Meckes said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Dave Barry reported being advised to "rock the Caesar" (meaning a hairstyle) in 1998.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    How about previous usages (whether in rap lyrics or Dave Barry columns) using this sense of "rock" where the direct object is not a fashion/hairstyle type item. "Snark" as the thing-being-rocked here is not an implausible metaphorical extension of that sense, but how far back does that sort of extension go? (FWIW, I had no trouble understanding the Doonesbury line, although I don't think this sense of "rock" is in my active vocabulary.)

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    The right-wing activist/networker/gadfly Grover Norquist wrote a book published in 1995 titled "Rock the House" (forward by Newt Gingrich) about the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in the '94 elections and the policies that (at least in Norquist's dreams) the new House majority might seek to legislate. The phrase "rock the house" is certainly also floating around multiple rap-and-other-genre lyrics, and someone else can try to antedate it, but I would say that this is the same sense of "rock" as "Rock the Vote" and might have even been an allusion to it. I tend to agree with myl that that "have a strong impact on" sense is distinct from the "wear with pride" sense.

  16. Greg Bowen said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    I don't know if this is just a personal interpretation or wider spread, but my sense of the word involves not just being confident in the display, but also pulling it off. There's a sense of success for me in it.

  17. Mick O said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    Wasn't "Rock the Vote" a play on "rock the boat?" with the bonus of "rock" as a musical double-entendre as well, it was an MTV-endorsed thing I believe. The meaning of "rock the vote" as an idea was to upset the norm of old people controlling the political conversation of the time. As such, I see rather little connection with the use of "rocking" as an updated synonym to "sporting."

  18. Philip Cummings said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Yeah, but what does 'snark' mean?

  19. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    The OED entry for rock, v.1 (June 2010 revision) covers much of this ground under sense 12. (I worked with the OED's Jesse Sheidlower on tracking down many of the early citations.) There you'll find "rock the mic" from Dec. 1978, in a transcription of a rap from Melle Mel of the group then known as Grandmaster Flash and the Four M.C.'s. (soon to find fame as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). From that sense of 'to handle effectively' comes other hiphop uses, as 'to perform or produce, esp. with confidence or flair' and 'to wear, esp. with panache; to display, flaunt, or sport (as a personally distinctive style, accessory, possession, etc.).' The earliest citation for the latter is from the 1987 Boogie Down Productions song "Elementary": "Watchin all these females rock their pants too tight." (The Wu-Tang Clan's "rockin' the gold tooth" mentioned upthread is also cited.)

    For more on the evolution of transitive rock, see my On Language column "When Did We First 'Rock the Mic'?" and my Word Routes follow-up, "Rocking the English Language."

  20. daveadams said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    "Snark" is (maybe) a portmanteau of "snide remark" and it means exactly that.

  21. Neil K. said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    Ben Zimmer just dropped some knowledge and rocked mad skills, yo, but I can't help sharing the earliest similar usage that came to mind for me:

    Derek B – Rock the Beat (1988)

  22. Charles in Vancouver said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    Yeah the whole "effectively" thing is an important part of "rock". Or I would actually phrase it as "getting away with it".

    I don't know if it's a false etymology but I've always seen this usage as connected to the musical sense. A rock band would get up on stage and say "Are you ready to rock, ?" And nowadays you'd say a musician really rocked even if rock isn't their genre. And it doesn't even have to be music. A really good public speaker could rock – i.e. a performance worthy of a rock star.

    So then the transitive "She rocked " is equivalent to "She wore and rocked". But then over time the extent of the necessary effectiveness shrank, such that now you just have to get away with it rather than wear it like a rockstar.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    What I find interesting is that the "rock the mic" formulation seems obviously related to, yet still one step removed from, the transitive-rock formation found in, e.g. "stomp-stomp-clap stomp-stomp-clap we will we will rock you" which was ubiquitous at the same time (that record came out just over a year before the Melle Mel bootleg was recorded, but unlike the latter, it seems like every white suburban male junior high school student in the U.S. was issued a copy of the former – I think it must have been a federal regulation). That "rock you" formulation (which is sort of the, um, causative/ergative equivalent to the intransitive sense in "are you ready to rock") descends from the older "rock this joint" sense, but is also distinct because of the overt self-referentiality involved once "rock" had become the relevant name for the genre of music itself. And relatedly since by the late '70's "rock" had evolved away from its integrated/mixed early roots to become very much white-kid music, it is interesting to find multiple senses of "rock" being continued and innovated upon in the non-rock black-kid music genres on the other side of what was at the time a fairly stark divide.

  24. Jim said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    ""Snark" is (maybe) a portmanteau of "snide remark" and it means exactly that."

    I remember seeing "snarcasm" on Harry's Place blog back in the early 2000s. It was a portmanteau of sarcasm and sneer.

  25. Uly said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    You guys are both wrong, the OED has citations of snark that go back to the early 1900s. I can definitively state that the word exists, with it's current definition, in the works of E. Nesbit.

    [(myl) The OED's citations for the verb, glossed as (from the 1912 edition, not yet updated):

    1882   J. Longmuir & D. Donaldson Jamieson's Etymol. Dict. Sc. Lang. (rev. ed.) IV. 314/2   To Snark, fret, grumble, or find fault with one. 1904   E. Nesbit Phoenix & Carpet x. 185   He remembered how Anthea had refrained from snarking him about tearing the carpet.


  26. Victoria Simmons said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    A change from hunting the snark.

    What I take away from this is how personal the understanding can be of a popular cliché.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

    I think AB's example is pretty interesting, since it equates compares rock with transitive sport, which I think no one would object to.

    I don't agree that "snark" is exactly the same as "snide remark." It's a more all-encompassing style than that. There has been a lively discussion on the web about the nuances and interactions of sincerity, snark, smarm and sarcasm for a while now. (See Tom Scocca's "On Smarm" for a lengthy, not quite satisfactory discussion.

  28. Rod Johnson said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    (Not to mention "tripe" and "glurge." Here's Heidi Julavitz's article that really brought snark into the critical consicouness back in 2003.)

  29. John Beaty said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    On a recent shoot, I had a recorder slung around my neck (instead of in a pouch), and one of the crew walked by and commented that I was "rockin' a Zoom H4." He was in his 30's at least.

  30. Rubrick said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    Someday teens will be baffled by the Hues Corporation's 1974 hit "Rock the Boat".

  31. Mayagrafix said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

    Viet Nam era "Let's Rock 'n Roll" for lets do this, as a verb has transformed to Rock "xxx", also as a verb ( ie: Rock the vote). Thus, in the Doonesbury example: 'Way to rock the snark…' = a good example of 'doing' sarcasm

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

    "The phrase "rock the house" is certainly also floating around multiple rap-and-other-genre lyrics, and someone else can try to antedate it…"

    "Rock the house" goes back more than twenty years, certainly into the late eighties, at least. La Toya Jackson wrote a song in 1991 entitled "Let's Rock the House", for example.

    It's a short step from there to "he's rocking the house", and then to the snowclone rock(*) the X.

  33. David J. Littleboy said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 2:56 am

    Rock the house is older than that. Heck, Hound Dog Taylor's backup band was "The Houserockers" ca 1971…

  34. Graeme said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:33 am

    To this Aussie – who read Doonesbury daily in the 80s-90s – the entire strip is impenetrable. (Except the 3rd panel).

    Too old, too blokey, too non-American?

  35. scott said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

    Trudeau does great dialog for his own generation. He tries to capture the sounds of younger generations, but it's not always successful.

    For years all of the 20-something males in the strip went around saying "Yo!" and "Dawg," while the army characters wore out the phrase "Roger that."

  36. Sykes Five said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:57 am

    As Ben Zimmer points out, the phrase "to rock the mic" is about as old as hip-hop itself. By 1994 it could be used offhandedly by the late "MCA" Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys in "Sure Shot," the first track on "Ill Communication," to describe his performance style in terms that may be interesting to linguists:

    Strictly handheld is the style I go
    Never rock the mic with the pantyhose
    I strap on my ear goggles and I'm ready to go
    ‘Cause at the boards is the man they call "the Mario"

    To "rock the mic with the pantyhose" would be to use a plosives filter, commonly improvised from pantyhose, to dampen /p/ and /b/ sounds which otherwise can overwhelm a microphone. You may see one in use at an open mic night. It looks like a little screen between the microphone and the musician's mouth, either attached to the mic or on its own stand.

    Refusal to use a plosives filter theoretically would give the music a harder edge, although in practice it would probably sound amateurish. In reality, certainly by the time they were recording this album the Beastie Boys and their producer/engineer Mario Caldato, Jr.–the man they call "the Mario"–simply had enough money to buy equipment that integrated the same functionality either automatically or through the producer's efforts on the boards. (We know from "Intergalactic Planetary" on 1998's "Hello Nasty" that "Mario C. likes to keep it clean.)

    So MCA's refusal to use a plosives filter is probably more directly related to his decision to go "strictly handheld." Because of the need to space the filter from the mic, just not feasible to use a plosives filter with a handheld mic.

  37. Bill Principe said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

    I am an infrequent reader of the language log.

    I guess I don't understand the confusion over "way to rock the snark."

    "Way to" is of course short for "That was a good way to" and signifies approval.

    "Rock" means "to do with great enthusiasm" or "to do with great effect."

    "Snark" is a backformed noun form of the adjective "snarky" meaning sarcastic, snide, or derisive.

    So "way to rock the snark" means "that was a good way to express sarcasm effectively." Or, "Ouch! You got me!"

  38. Mike said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

    "Way to rock the snark" just doesn't sound idiomatic to me…

    You can rock a mic, or rock a hair style. I don't think you can rock snark. Maybe it's the clash of 80s/90s slang with a primarily internet phenomenon. Or maybe because rocking something implies some level of sincerity or enthusiasm which is the antithesis of snark.

  39. Fiona said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    Quote from a beauty blog: "A friend of mine has very shiny, very light blonde hair, and she can rock shimmery eye-shadow during the day and make it look appropriate. "

    What I noticed is that this writer specifies that her friend makes it look appropriate, as if "rock" does not imply total success.

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