to cock a snook

 

to cock a snook - faire un pied de nez - Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen

illustration by the Danish artist Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-59)

 

The literal sense of to cock a snook is to make a rude gesture by putting one thumb to the nose with the fingers of the hand outstretched. Its figurative meaning is to show contempt by being insulting or offensive.

Here, to cock means to turn up, to stick up, apparently originally with reference to the posture of a cock’s neck in crowing, or that of his crest or his tail. In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) defined to cock as “to set erect; to hold bolt upright, as a cock holds his head”.

The word snook, of unknown origin, is used only in this phrase. It is not known whether or not it is related to snout, which sometimes replaces it in an attempt to make the phrase more comprehensible.

(The French equivalent of to cock a snook, in both its literal and figurative meanings, is faire un pied de nez, literally to make one foot of nose (foot denoting the unit of linear measure). Another phrase, now obsolete, was avoir un pied de nez, literally to have one foot of nose, meaning to be ashamed of having failed to achieve one’s goal.)

An early instance of the English phrase is found in the diary of Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle (1778-1857); on 7th December 1791, she wrote:

I will begin with some account of the peasants. These are of a really revolting vulgarity especially the little boys Mr Cimador can never go by on horseback without these nasty children making impertinences to the horse and everything that one does is very laughable to their eyes for they cock snooks at one on every occasion.

But the phrase began to be more widely used about a century later. The English author Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903) wrote in his journal, on 15th August 1879:

A Bishop (Wilberforce of course) remonstrated with a country curate in his diocese for driving tandem. The curate said, ‘Well, my Lord, I cannot see that there is more harm in my driving my horses before each other than in my driving them side by side.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said the Bishop, ‘there really is a fitness in things; for example, if I put my hands so (folding them together), no one can reproach me, but if I put them so (cutting a snooks), they might reproach me very much indeed.’

The context of this passage indicates that, here, to cut a snooks consisted in putting the hands “before each other”, that is, probably, in putting the thumb of one hand to the nose and the thumb of the other to the little finger of the first.

The English author and hoaxer Theodore Edward Hook (1788-1841) used a variant, to take a double sight, in Gilbert Gurney (1836):

(1850 edition)
The trial of the girl was concluded, […] she was acquitted, and never shall I forget the effect which this result of her trial produced upon her manners and features. The moment my friend Zig-zag had pronounced the words, “Not guilty,” the pathetic expression which had characterised her countenance turned into the most humorous, and having winked her eye at the learned judge, who, poor man, had summed up decidedly against her, she proceeded to place her two hands extended in a right line from the tip of her nose, in the direction of his lordship’s seat, after the fashion of what is called “taking a double sight.”

In this context, the literal sense of to take a sight is to aim. In A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1860 edition), the English author and publisher John Camden Hotten (1832-73) wrote:

Sight, “to take a sight at a person,” a vulgar action employed by street boys to denote incredulity, or contempt for authority, by placing the thumb against the nose and closing all the fingers except the little one, which is agitated in token of derision.

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