meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to cock a snook’

The phrase to cock (also to cut, to pull) a snook, or snooks, means:
– literally: to make a gesture of derision by putting one’s thumb to one’s nose and outspreading the fingers; this gesture can be intensified by joining the tip of the little finger to the thumb of the other hand, whose fingers are also outspread—cf. also Queen Anne’s fan;

– figuratively: to act with blatant disregard for the feelings or status of a person, organisation, etc.

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 (1709-1784) 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 senses, is faire un pied de nez, meaning to make a foot-long nose. Another phrase, now obsolete, was avoir un pied de nez, i.e., to have a foot-long nose, meaning to be ashamed of having failed to achieve one’s goal.

These are the earliest occurrences of the English phrase that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From the diary of Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle (1778-1857)—entry dated 7th December 1791:

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.

2-: From a story telling how, on Christmas night, Reynard, i.e., a fox, stole five turkeys from a bailiff’s property—story published in The Irish Farmers’ Gazette and Journal of Practical Horticulture (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of 18th January 1868:

Reynard, he was not sleeping! Did I not decipher his meaning in his movements that next forenoon, as Jack Frost resigned his stereotyped track to the master official, the mid-day sun? Clearly therein I could see how he lay and pondered—how then he stole on tiptoe down the cart-rut—and how he sat up here and no doubt pulled snooks just anent [= opposite] our honest bailiff’s window, for there was the exact mould in the mud where he sat up and winked his eye, and again went on!

3-: From the Hampshire Chronicle (Winchester, Hampshire, England) of 10th October 1868:

City Bench, yesterday […].
[…]
Insulting Gestures.—Chas. Holmes, formerly warder at the County Prison, was charged by Capt. Baynes, governor of that establishment, with having used threatening and insulting gestures to him on the 2d October at West Hill. Mr. W. Bailey appeared to support the charge. Mr. F. A. Stanley was called to prove the case, which was described as “cutting a snook,” (that is “he put his hand unto his nose, and stretched his fingers out”).

4-: From the account of an episode that occurred during the Siege of Sebastopol (1854-55), in the Crimean War (1853-56)—account published in The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta, West Bengal, India) of 22nd March 1878:

A midshipman in the Royal Navy is said to have several times jumped on the top of the parapet of the trench and “cut snooks,” at the Russians when firing on his battery, and to have escaped with a whole skin.

5-: From the journal of the English author Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903)—entry dated 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.’