The Language of Sharks

What’s not to love about sharks? First of all, the word. It sounds like what it does: opens with a tear – sh! – growls a bit – ar! (not that sharks growl) – and ends with a chomp in a hard k. The distribution of tall and short letters also resemble a row of jagged teeth.

Like the waters this carnivorous fish swims in, the word’s origins are murky. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the slang sense of a “dishonest person who preys on others” may have been the word’s original meaning, applied to the apex predator later on. Shark possibly comes from the German “Schorck, a variant of Schurke ‘scoundrel, villain.’”

Shark as a sleazy predator has several variations. It could mean an “amoral lawyer, or ambulance chaser,” a relentless person in business (a loan shark would be an extreme example), “a person who feigns ineptitude to win money from others” (like a pool shark or card shark), and a person in general regarded as “ruthless, greedy, or dishonest.”

The different varieties of sharks have cool names too. There’s the swingletail and megamouth. There’s the catshark, the dogfish, the smoothhound, and the porbeagle (which comes from Cornish porbugel, meaning “Port of Bude,” perhaps where this species was first spotted, and has nothing to do with beagle, which possibly comes from the Old French bee gueule, “loudmouth”). There’s the hammerhead, also known as the bonnethead and shovelhead. There’s the cookiecutter, the tiburon, and the stinkard. There’s the sand shark (not to be confused with the Land Shark). Then there’s our favorite, the wobbegong, a New South Wales or Australian Aboriginal name that means shaggy beard, “referring to the growths around the mouth of the shark of the western Pacific.”

What’s a group of sharks? A shiver. How about an aggressive shark separate from the herd? A rogue (the great white in Jaws was a rogue). Feeling chummy? You may feel friendly but you may also feel like shark bait. A megalodon is an extinct shark (with an enormous jaw) and the granddaddy of all sharks. A mermaid’s-purse is a shark egg casing. A pilot fish is small fish that follows sharks, picking up loose bits of food, and is slang for a parasite or moocher. Shagreen is shark skin, and comes from the French chagrin, which comes from the Turkish sağri, “crupper, leather.” (Chagrin meaning “mental disquiet and pain from the failure of aims or plans, want of appreciation, mistakes” may come from the dialectal French chagraigner, “to distress, become gloomy.”)

Let’s not forget those shark idioms. To swim with sharks means “to operate among dangerous people.” Shark repellent is “a measure undertaken by a corporation to discourage unwanted takeover attempts.” Jumping the shark means “to undergo a storyline development which is so exceptional that all content following is disappointing,” and originates from a scene in the TV series Happy Days in which “a water-skiing Fonzie . . . wearing swimming trunks and his leather jacket, jumps over a confined shark, answering a challenge to demonstrate his bravery.”

A voodoo shark is when “writers catch a particularly bad Plot Hole, but they leave it in because it is still critical to the story,” and explain it away with a voodoo shark rather than disrupt the story. The term comes from the Jaws sequel, Jaws: The Revenge (“This time it’s personal!”) in which the “eponymous shark. . .attacks the living relatives and friends of Martin Brody due to a supposed voodoo curse.” (So that’s why it’s personal.)

A Wordnik blog post wouldn’t be complete without lists, but you’ll have to wait for next week’s shark-related lists of the day, as well as our sharky words of the day. For now enjoy today’s, Sharks and megalodon.

We have so much sharkiness, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.