Q From Mike Pringle: Any idea on the origins of the phrase cock a snook. I can see the cock side of it, but why snook which is, I believe, a fish?
A Ah. Wrong sort of snook. Possibly the wrong sort of cock, too, I could guess, though to investigate more deeply might sully the chaste reputation of this newsletter.
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. Waggling them is optional but greatly improves the effectiveness of the insult. The gesture is widespread but names for it vary: cocking a snook is mainly the British name for what Americans, I think, sometimes describe as a five-fingered salute. Heaven knows what the notably blunt Australians call it.
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.)