Tag Archives: John Hotten

What Is The Origin Of (299)?…

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.

What Is The Origin Of (253)?…

Black as Newgate’s knocker

In these desperately politically correct days it is a brave person who wades into a discussion of shade and colour but there are times when you are compelled to describe the darkness of something. There are a number of similes in the standard formulation of as x as y you can use that will not make your hearer blanche but if you looking for something a little recherché, why not consider as black as Newgate’s knocker?  

There are two possible origins for this phrase, although they both may flow from the same source, Newgate prison, upon whose site the Old Bailey now stands. It was rebuilt five times before it was finally closed in 1902 and demolished two years later. Newgate had a fearsome reputation, housing criminals and debtors and from 1783 it was a place of execution, initially the felons were dispatched from a platform outside the gaol but later the executions were held indoors.

The knocker on the front door would be a symbol of terror. It had to be used to summon a guard who would then admit the prisoner to what was a noisy, foul, fetid cesspit of humanity. Whether the knocker was black is open to some debate. Its association with the grim fate awaiting prisoners and death would be enough to ascribe dark characteristics to do it. There is, however, a black door knocker, said to be the original, mounted on a block of wood from the prison which is used as a gavel at ceremonial dinners held in the Lord Mayor’s and Sheriff’s Dining Room at the Central Criminal Court.

References to the Newgate knocker began to appear in the mid eighteenth century, it has a pleasing alliteration, after all. In James Hoey’s The Batchelor; or, Speculations of Jeoffry Wagstaffe, Esq of 1769 it is used to describe something aged and tough, a figurative reference to the prison regime but one easy to understand; “Dear Jack, I wish your old dad would tip off, that you might come once more: damn it, he’s as old as the knocker of Newgate, but I think as tough as a gad”. A gad was an iron bar.

I associate the 18th century with ridiculous, over the top fashions worn by the upper classes but the lower orders, particularly fashionable young men and especially costermongers, were not impervious to the siren call of fashion. The Kentish Gazette in July 1781 described a Mr Julep who had given up a full-bottomed grizzle wig for a “spruce club stiled a Newgate Knocker”. This hair-do involved a lock of hair being twisted from the temple on either side of the head back towards the ear, making a shape rather like the figure six.

It was a relatively long-lived fashion, references to it can be found dating to the middle of the next century. To be flash, according to one lad interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his London Labour and the London Poor of 1851, the hair “ought to be long in front, and done in figure-six curls or twisted back to the ear Newgate knocker style”. John Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words of 1859 helpfully commented that “the shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate”. Two years later a correspondent to the Illustrated Times of London described a mob as “bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the Newgate knocker style”.

There is no direct association of the hair style to the colour black. Of course, many sporting the style would have black hair but the simile seems to be of a later date. The Cornishman in March 1881 helpfully included a column which investigated the oddities of dialects from around the country. It described “as black as Newgate knocker” as “a Cockney phrase”. I suspect that the origin is the knocker on Newgate prison which as well as spawning this rather colourful but later simile but also gave its name to a popular hairstyle. There is no reason to think that the hairstyle gave rise to the phrase.