To cock a snook
As a gesture, much beloved by schoolchildren, you press the tip of your nose with your thumb and spread your fingers. For extra effect, you can waggle your fingers. The Americans, prosaic to the last, call it a five-fingered salute. It is intended to show contempt by aiming a mildly insulting gesture at your victim. Its figurative meaning echoes the gesture. It is not certain how deeply ingrained cocking a snook is in English culture but on the continent it can be traced back until at least the 16th century, meriting a mention in the writings of Francois Rabelais from 1532 and depicted in Pieter Brueghel’s drawing, La Fête des fous, from 1560. The equivalent phrase in French is faire un pied de nez.
If we were to dissect the English phrase we would find that the verb to cock meant to turn up or stick up, rather as a cockerel does with its crest. Samuel Johnson defined the verb, in his A Dictionary of the English Language from 1755, as “to set erect; to hold bolt upright, as a cock holds his head”. Snook, is a kind of North American fish and it is also a term used to describe a promontory of land which juts out. The latter definition fits the description of the gesture, but it is fair to say that it is not a common word and there is no direct attribution of this word it. Some argue that it is a derivative of snout, but snout is such a common word you would think that it rather than an obscure variant would be used in the phrase.
One of the earliest examples of the phrase appeared in Wynne’s Diary, compiled by Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle. In her entry for December 7, 1791 she reports of the behaviour of some peasant children, as she calls them, towards a local worthy, Mr Cimador; “they cock snooks at one on every occasion”. Almost a century later, Augustus Hare in his The story of my life, published in 1879, reports on a demonstration given by a bishop; “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”.
What is clear from Hare’s example, emphasised by his use of snook in the plural, is that the bishop was using both hands, presumably with the thumb of the first hand pressed to his nose and the thumb of the other to the finger of the first. This was also called taking a double sight. Theodore Hook, in his Gilbert Gurney of 1850, described it thus; “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””.
Another name for the gesture was taking a sight at a person. John Hotten helpfully defined it in his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words from 1860 as “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”. The gesture even made the pages of the Thunderer, the Times reporting in 1904 that “the young monkey puts his tongue in his cheek and cocks a snook at you”. Curiously, there is no specific reference to a hand gesture and it may be by this time cocking a snook was a portmanteau phrase to describe a gesture of derision or contempt.
Nowadays, though, in its literal sense it is restricted to a specific hand gesture, but in a metaphorical sense, it is used to express general contempt. But what a snook is is anybody’s guess.