Tag Archives: Theodore Hook

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.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Five

The Berners Street Hoax, 1810

Chaos descended upon Berners Street in London’s Fitzrovia on 26th November 1810. The road was crowded with merchants who descended upon No 54, the home of a wealthy woman, Mrs Tottenham or, in some reports, Mrs Tottingham. The London Annual Register noted that what turned up included “Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture.” The poor lady of the house was at her wit’s end.

During the course of the day more and more tradesmen arrived, including an undertaker with a custom made coffin. Around midday the Lord Mayor of London arrived brandishing a letter from Mrs Tottenham asking him to favour her with a visit. He soon realised it was a fake and made a speedy exit, stage left. The afternoon saw a steady flow of tradesmen and the street was in chaos with their carts made worse by a motley crew of onlookers who had assembled to view the comings and goings. The police, in an attempt to restore order, blocked off both ends of the street but it was not until it had grown dark that some sort of order was restored.

Each of the tradesmen had received a letter, purportedly from Mrs Tottenham, requesting them to attend her house with their wares at designated times during the day. As she was known to be a wealthy woman and of standing, tradesmen jumped at the chance of doing some business with her. Of course, it was all an elaborate hoax and the police were on the search for the perpetrator, offering a reward “for the apprehension of the criminal hoax.

The hoax generated considerable public interest and by the following year, references to it on the stage drew enthusiastic responses from the audience. The perpetrator, however, remained undetected. By 1812 the finger of suspicion was pointed at a young writer of comic operas, one Theodore Hook who was known as a playboy and practical joker. One of his favourite tricks, it seemed, was to knock on the front door of a perfect stranger and using his charm and persuasiveness secure himself an invite to dinner.

Hook sort of confessed in a roundabout sort of way in his semi-autobiographical Gilbert Gurney, published in 1835. There one character, Dray, remarks, “There’s nothing like fun — what else made the effect in Berner’s Street? I am the man — I did it.” Hook was never charged but further details of the possible motives for an elaborate hoax on a woman with whom he had no connection emerged in the early 1840s. It was said that when he and a friend were walking down Berners Street Hook pointed at random to number 54 and said, “I’ll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in all London.” It is even said that Hook and his accomplices – the sheer size of the hoax required that over a 1,000 letters be written and sent to tradesfolk summoning them to Berners Street – rented a room across the way to better view the mayhem.

The hoax was not original – on 31st October 1809 a hoaxer had sent numerous tradesmen to the home of an apothecary in Bedford Street in Covent Garden as payback for some medicine “which did him no good” – but what marked it out was its sheer size and audacity or, as Grace and Philip Wharton put in The Wits and Beaux of Society in 1861,”it was not the idea of the hoax — simple enough in itself — which was entitled to the admiration accorded to ingenuity, but its extent and success.” Quite.