Shark Week: Sharkings and Loan

Loan Shark

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?

[Photo via Flickr: “Fishes-22-090 – Thrasher, Basking Shark, Brown Shark, Rough Hound,” CC BY 2.0 by]

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.