The 25th anniversary of Shark Week starts this Sunday, and we’re taking a bite out of some sharky words. Last year we explored shark types (our favorite is the wobbegong), terms (mermaid’s-purse anyone?), and idioms (careful of that voodoo shark!). This year we’re diving into the predatory human side of the cartilaginous carnivore.
The origin of the word shark, as applied to the animal, is uncertain. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the 1560s “the word and the first specimen were brought to London by Capt. John Hawkins’s second expedition.” From a handbill advertising the exhibition: “There is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a ‘sharke.’” A possible relation is the German schirk, “sturgeon.”
Shark referring to “a sharper; a cheat; a greedy, dishonest fellow who eagerly preys upon others; a rapacious swindler,” seems to have come about slightly later, around 1599. The origin is also unknown. It may come from the German Schurke, “scoundrel, villain,” or, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French cherquier or chercher, “to seek,” as in the phrase chercher le broust, “to hunt after feasts, to play the parasite or smell-feast.”
A variation of shark is sharp, as in cardsharp, also known as card shark, “a professional card player who makes a living by cheating at card games.” If you lose all your money to a card shark, you may need a loan shark, “one who lends money at exorbitant interest rates, especially one financed and supported by an organized crime network.” The term is attested to 1900. An older word is usurer, which originated in the late 13th century, while a synonym is shylock, “a ruthless moneylender,” which attests to 1786 and is named for a character in Shakepeare’s The Merchant of Venice. How ruthless? Shylock demanded as payment a pound of flesh, which now refers to any “debt harshly insisted upon.”
A juice collector works for a loan shark, collecting the money, or juice, owed. Juice is slang for “funds; money.” Around the 16th century, says Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, juice‘s meaning of “the profits of a profession or office” came about, while in the late 17th century and the 1920s, juice referred especially to money from bribery, corruption, or loan-sharking. These meanings may be due to “money’s ‘lubricant’ properties.” A juice loan is “a loan at usurious interest rates, normally made by organised criminals,” while vigorish, or vig, is “a charge taken on bets, as by a bookie or gambling establishment,” or “interest, especially excessive interest, paid to a moneylender.” Vigorish is Yiddish slang and comes from the Russian vyigrysh, “winnings.”
If you’re a sailor, watch out for land-sharks those who subsist “by cheating or robbing sailors on shore.” The land-shark is also known as a land-pirate, or “a land-grabber; one who seizes upon land by force or chicanery.” The term seems to have originated in the 19th century. Meanwhile, a sea lawyer, a species of shark, is also “a querulous or captious sailor, disposed to criticize orders rather than to obey them; one who is always arguing about his work, and making trouble.” As says a 1908 piece in The New York Times:
Sea lawyer and pest are synonomous term with every Captain. The sea lawyer is the man with little education and a meddlesome disposition. His mate on land is the fellow who shows up after every accident and advises: “Sue the company.”
Be careful also of shirkers, those who “avoid or get off from unfairly or meanly; slink away from,” or “practise mean or artful tricks; live by one’s wits.” Shirk, like shark, comes from the German Schurke, “scoundrel,” which is related to the Old High German fiurscurgo, “demon,” where fiur means “fire” and scurigen, “to stir up.” Those with shark’s manners are rapacious, “greedy; ravenous,” or “subsisting on live prey,” and may engage in feeding frenzies, periods of “intense or excited feeding, as by sharks,” or figuratively, “excited activity by a group, especially around a focal point.”
The literal meaning feeding frenzy has been in use since the 1950s, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, while the metaphorical meaning came about around 1989. However, we found a couple of earlier citations. The following comparison is from a July 7, 1976 column by Pat Buchanan: “The national press would become as sharks in a feeding frenzy.” The below is from Jim Bishop on August 23, 1978:
Immediately after Watergate there was a silence, as though a bleeding man had slipped into a shark pool. After that, it was a feeding frenzy. The press corps shredded the president and all his men.
What are some of your favorite shark words?