Cock a Snook, You Say?

DAVE BARRY’s Blog
August 21, 2003
“COCK A SNOOK” UPDATE

Anna Louise emailed a link to The Word Detective, who states:
To “cock a snook” at someone is a bit more elaborate than simply thumbing one’s nose. To “cock a snook” is a classic display of derision, properly performed by spreading the fingers of one hand, touching the tip of your nose with your thumb while sighting your opponent along the tips of your other fingers (what the British sometimes call a “Queen Anne’s Fan,” but what we more commonly call a “five-finger salute”), and waggling your fingers in the most annoying way possible.
As a gesture, it doesn’t really mean anything, but it does convey utter contempt rather well. Like all fine insulting gestures, cocking a snook always goes well with a Bronx Cheer, or raspberry, as an accompaniment.

Crossing your eyes while doing all this is optional but definitely enhances the overall effect. And remember, kids, practice makes perfect.

Posted by Dave on August 21, 2003

**********
COCK A SNOOK
“The truth is, we have no idea at all where this phrase comes from. The gesture of derision it encapsulates is that of putting one’s thumb to one’s nose and extending the fingers. . .

Cock here is a verb with the sense of sticking something out stiffly in an attitude of defiance, as the cockerel’s neck, crest or tail is erect when he crows. So we have expressions like to cock the nose, to turn one’s nose up in contempt or indifference. A cocked hat is one whose brim has been turned up; a cocked gun is one whose hammer has been raised, ready for firing. And so on.

So far so good. But snook is not so easily explainable, since the word turns up only in this phrase. There’s an example known from 1791, but the phrase doesn’t become widely recorded until the last years of the nineteenth century. There is some suggestion that it is a variant form of snout, which would make sense.

Because snook isn’t known now, folk etymology often turns the phrase in cock a snoot, since snoot is known as a slang name for the nose. (It’s another variant of snout.)

*********
“I’m pretty certain that the “cocking” part comes from coxcomb (or cock’s comb if you’d rather), because visually it is a little reminiscent of a rooster’s comb. A coxcomb was also an old word for jester or fool, so-called again because of the shape of his cap and bells.

You’re right that in a few European countries to this day, ‘making the horns at someone’ is a gesture of insult . . . but these days more liable to mean that the target is just dense.”
Hence cocking a snook – originally showing someone you think they’re a fool, and from there, just being defiant and impertinent.”

One of the Seven Dwarves

We like carrying on the tradition of jesters and fools -
speaking truth to power, and to even greater fools than we are.
And we appreciate the modern inference that “our targets are just dense”!

9 responses

2 10 2006
Paul Danaher

The other day I came across the expression “to make long bacon”, which is to put your thumb to your nose and spread extend the hand and fingers. (Just thought I’d spread more confusion.)

2 10 2006
misedjj

Bacon?
Which brings pork into the whole thing…

16 03 2007
eireann

Interesting…I was wondering what the heck that meant. I was grounded once when I was ten for “to make long bacon” against a neighbor. Little did I know how pertinent that guesture was!

Thanks for the education.

30 10 2007
JJ

Favorite Daughter had some fun defining it for herself at Cocking a Snook Too:

This site is neither “icky”, “creepy”, nor an outlet for photographs of attractive woodland animals in lingerie. . .

26 01 2008
sunniemom

To Deaf people, that particular hand gesture is Obscene. Of course, many of our typical American hand gestures are obscene in ASL, which is why I no longer order pie in restaurants.

26 01 2008
JJ

Sunniemom, you are always educational! ;-)

9 03 2008
Nancy Wooton

That particular gesture was sketched by the “Mama of Dada,” Beatrice Wood, for the poster of the 1925 art exhibit “Blindman’s Ball,” featuring the work of Marcel Duchamp and others. It has become a logo for her and her artwork; see it at http://www.beatricewood.com Well worth investigating! (As an aside, at the age of 100, she was the real-life inspiration for the film “Titanic,” the character of Rose, who is throwing a pot on a wheel when we first meet her.)

9 03 2008
JJ

Thanks, Nancy! Love the poster — and I’m pretty sure I’ll love the whole site.

16 06 2011
That was quick: Crummy Cleveland mob pic now out on DVD « Media Myth Alert

[...] Hollywood exaggerates. A lot. But a documentary-esque film ought not to cock a snook at the truth. And there was no such bombing rampage in downtown Cleveland that [...]

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