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Bigger in size but equally ignorant: ‘shark’

By Anatoly Liberman


The fishy series in this blog began with shrimp, reached the heights of prawn, and now, bypassing countless intermediate steps, will offer a discussion of shark. I am sorry to admit that despite the monster’s size and voracity I can say deplorably little about the chosen subject, but, since I always deal with obscure vocabulary, I suffer from self-inflicted wounds and have no reason to complain. Before I come to the point, an apology is in order. While compiling my voluminous bibliography of English etymology, I didn’t encounter references to Tom Jones’s publication on shark. However, the moment I decided to write a post on this word (which happened three weeks ago) and searched the Internet, his article turned up at once. This episode goes a long way toward accounting for multiple gaps in even well-researched studies. Complete bibliographies of anything are an unattainable dream (in the area of etymology practically no bibliographies exist at all: the only analogs of my venture are a three-volume set dealing with Finnish and a slim index of references to some literature on Lithuanian), so that nothing is easier than to miss important contributions to the chosen subject. Let it also be noted that Google did not exist in the past.

With regard to shark, the state of the art has been summarized in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Shark, of unknown origin, is said to have been so named by sailors of Captain John Hawkins’s expedition, who brought home a specimen that was exhibited in London in 1569. The available evidence is insufficient to determine connection (so we read) with the obsolete noun shark “parasite, sharper” (which surfaced in print several decades later), its synonym shirk, or the verb shark “prey upon” (both of which are also obsolete; shirk is extant with a different sense).

A dogfish? Source: nicepetsblog.com.

The Europeans of the Middle Ages had some knowledge of sharks, as their references to dog-fish and hound-fish show; compare Italian pesce-cane. Other than that, words for “shark” differ widely in the languages of Europe. Some of them, for instance, French requin and Spanish tiburón, are as opaque as Engl. shark. Others pose no difficulties. Such is Icelandic hár, which designates various long wooden objects (“rowlock/oarlock” and so forth). The fish was named after its shape, which is a common occurrence; thus, the pike resembles a pike. From Old Norse the Dutch, and from Dutch the Germans, borrowed haai and Hai. Russian akula, stress on the second syllable, is also of Scandinavian descent (Old Icelandic hákall: kall = karl “fellow”). Apparently, the sailors did not associate the shark they saw in the fifteen-sixties with the dogfish and felt that they needed a different word for it. The predictable question is whether they coined that word themselves or learned it from someone.

The second variant appears to be more probable, but the source of information (if it existed) is hidden. This is where Tom Jones came in and suggested that shark is an alteration of Yacatec Indian Xoc. His article can be found in the Internet, and I will not retell it. Jones gave a most valuable survey of the early attempts to explain the English word but not of all the relevant literature (for example, he did not mention Ernest Weekley’s hypothesis). There is no harm in it. More significant are other considerations. Nothing is known about Hawkins’s informants or about the expedition’s contacts with the natives. That is, we have no evidence that the English asked someone: “That big fish! What do you call it?” (and if such an exchange took place, that they did not misunderstand the answer). Provided the sign we transliterate as x had the value of Modern Engl. sh, in the middle of the seventeenth century Engl. r had not yet been lost after vowels, that is, shark was sh-a-r-k, more or less as in Modern American English, and did not sound like shuck or shock. Enthusiastic statements to the effect that Tom Jones discovered the derivation of shark should, in my opinion, be taken with a grain of salt.

At first blush, the most attractive hypothesis connects shark with Latin carcharus (from Greek), a kind of shark, so called from its sharp teeth. The coincidence is almost too good to be accidental, but it presupposes the presence of a participant in the expedition versed in Latin (or Greek, because the Latin word is of Greek origin), who suggested the name. The report dated 1569 neither refutes nor corroborates this etymology: “There is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that certayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a sharke.” We aren’t told who those certain men were. In any case, carcharus would have been rendered as cark, not shark. For initial sh- we need an Old French intermediary, which has not been recorded and most probably never existed.

Source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington.

Several scholars cited Dutch schrock “glutton,” German Schurke “scoundrel,” and two or three similar-sounding Romance words of the same meaning. (Some of those might be borrowed into Germanic or be ultimately of Germanic origin, while the French noun was taken over from Italian, and so forth. Details matter little in this context, for we are interested only in the immediate source of shark.) But the problem is the same as with Latin carcharus. Was there a native speaker of German or Dutch among the sailors who called the fish “glutton” or “scoundrel” in his language and was imitated (up to the point) by his English comrades? This scenario is quite unlikely. Still more fanciful is the attempt to connect shark with German Harke “rake” (an implement). We are dealing with what appears to be a word borrowed from the natives or a coinage invented on the spur of the moment. By definition it has no cognates. To look for its Latin, Dutch, or German siblings is as futile as to derive nerd from n- (a negation) -er- (the root of earth) and -d (a suffix) and explain it as “not of this earth,” or to suggest that hot dogs were originally eaten on dog days (hence their name). In our case, these are all distractions, red herrings (if I may).

It is now necessary to return to the conjecture rejected by the original editors of the OED. English once had shark “sharper” and shark “prey upon.” The verb shirk and the dialectal adjective sharg “tiny, mean, withered” may be left out of discussion as probably irrelevant. The question asked in connection with the history of shrimp and prawn arises again: Could the fish name be secondary? The OED did not admit this possibility because the verb shark “prey upon” was attested later than the name of the fish. But a few decades mean next to nothing in the recorded history of slang and “low words.”

If shark “parasite” and shark “prey upon” are related, they could have been part of the common European language of vagabonds, sharpers, and thieves, to which German Schurke also belonged. Sharks, called the scavengers of the sea, voracious creatures devouring everything that comes their way and following ships for the waste thrown overboard, are “parasites” indeed. I believe that of all the dubious hypotheses presented above only shark as a metaphor holds out some promise. The opposite process (from the fish to a despicable human being) presupposes speakers’ broad familiarity with the fish name shark much too early. To be sure, shark1 and shark2 may be unrelated, though even in that case they might influence each other.

An aquarium seems to be an excellent hunting ground for etymologists, especially if they are prepared to come away empty-handed.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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