Requiem Shark.

I’m rereading Moby Dick after a lapse of decades, and in the famous chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” I was stopped by this passage:

As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the same quality in the Polar quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly hit by the French in the name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish mass for the dead begins with ‘Requiem eternam’ (eternal rest), whence Requiem denominating the mass itself, and any other funereal music. Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him Requin.

Needless to say, I found the suggested etymology more than dubious, and went to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the following entry (updated March 2010) in the OED:

requiem, n.2

Etymology: A borrowing from French. Etymons: French requin, requien, requiem.
< French requin (1539 in Middle French), requien (1578), requiem (1658 in the passage translated in quot. 1666), of uncertain origin; it has been suggested that the second element may show French regional (northern) quin, variant of chien dog (compare chien de mer dogfish n.), but this explanation poses difficulties. The form requiem probably results from folk-etymological association with requiem requiem n.1, a person taken by the shark being taken to be as good as dead. Compare Portuguese requeime (of uncertain date and origin).

A large or dangerous shark; (Zool.) (more fully requiem shark) a member of the family Carcharhinidae, which includes many of the typical large and medium-sized sharks (as the tiger, bull, blue, and reef sharks) and the hammerheads.
1666 J. Davies tr. C. de Rochefort Hist. Caribby-Islands i. xvii. 102 The Requiem, otherwise called the Shark-Fish, is a kind of Sea-Dog or Sea-Wolf.
1666 J. Davies tr. C. de Rochefort Hist. Caribby-Islands i. xvii. 103 The French and Portuguez commonly call it Requiem, that is to say Rest, haply, because he is wont to appear in fair weather.
1705 tr. W. Bosman New Descr. Coast of Guinea xv. 281 Hayes or Requiens, by some (though utterly wrong) named Sea-Dogs;..are very thick as well as very long, some of them betwixt twenty and thirty foot.
1896 D. S. Jordan & B. W. Evermann Fishes N. & Middle Amer. I. 27 [Family] Galeidae. (The Requiem Sharks)… Sharks with 2 dorsal fins, the first short and high, entirely before the ventrals.
1973 ‘P. Buchanan’ Requiem of Sharks xiii. 136 Any man-eater is called a requiem.
2000 C. Tudge Variety of Life ii. xiv. 362 The Carcharinidae [sic] (13 genera, 15 species) contain the somewhat chillingly but aptly termed ‘requiem sharks’; they range from medium-sized to extremely large.

So the etymology is indeed dubious, but what a great word!


  1. Trond Engen says

    ON rekingr m. “expulsed or honourless person, freak”, ref. vargr for the semantics. And skarkr.

  2. For the most part I really enjoyed the whalish and pseudo-encyclopedic parts of Moby Dick, but “The Whiteness of the Whale” was the one chapter that I had the hardest time getting through. It seems that I am simply not capable of caring so much about the color white. What a strange book…

  3. Florentius Georgius says

    In older French sailors’ slang, sharks were called “jean-louis” (like the names, ‘John Louis’). I have no idea why.

  4. Trond Engen says

    Requin could be from *rekingr as a taboo replacement of , parallel to vargr, but it could also come from reanalysis of *reking-há.

  5. Trond Engen says

    ON rekingr “outcast” alternated with the forms rekningr and reklingr. The latter was also used for (or homonymous with a word for) “piece of dried fish”.

  6. David Marjanović says


    I think we have a winner.

  7. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Etymonline: “shark (n.) 1560s, of uncertain origin; (…) Northern Europeans seem not to have been familiar with sharks before voyages to the tropics began. A slightly earlier name for it in English was tiburon, via Spanish (where it is attested by 1520s), from the Carib name for the fish. ”

    Yet Old Norse apparently had hákarl, from which Russian акула is borrowed (some say that via Saami). Clearly, something doesn’t jibe here. Maybe the ON word just denoted a particular type of small shark and the large ones were seen as something different?

  8. Trond Engen says

    Yes, is the native Scandinavian word for “shark”, borrowed into Dutch and then back to Cont. Sc. as hai. hákarl is a certain type of shark. As for ‘shark’, that Carib etymology, or Maya, or whatever, is a lookalike. There’s a perfectly good Germanic etymology. Here’s me a couple of years ago.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Oh, and more thorough, in sci.lang five years ago.

  10. Ordbog over det danske Sprog ventures a guess that No and Ju skurke in the sense of “huddle frozenly” is metathetically related to skrukke and thence Sw skrynka = shrivel / shrink. Of which the latter looks like an loan of the same from Norse.

    Skruk in Danish is now what a woman is who can’t wait to have children, from the similar condition of hens that try to hide away with a clutch of eggs so the farmer won’t take them. I’m hard put to think of an equivalent in English. Also, beat that for semantic transfer.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Yes, I think the words are a mixed lot, and the relation to skrukka is interesting. It’s suggestive of skark being a metathesis of skrank, whatever that might have meant — but something to do with shrinkage.

  12. Trond Engen says

    … but I still think a derivation from sker “cut” is more likely.

  13. And I mixed up Skruk I. and Skruk II., sorry. The second one is onomatopoetic from the sound a hen uses to call her chicks. It seems that she starts producing this noise well before the chicks are hatched, at which point the zero-derived adjective applies to her.

    So Danish women of baby panic age have nothing to do with freezing Norwegians after all.

  14. Trond Engen says

    That makes sense. Likewise, the condition in a hen is called klukk in Norwegian. Or verpesjuk. Only the latter is used for women. In English ‘broody’ is used for both people and poultry, my dictionary says.

  15. @Trond Engen: That meaning of “broody” strikes me very much as Commonwealth English. I’ve heard it from British and Australian sources, but it’s not used in American English.

  16. Of the two currently updated dictionaries of AmE, Merriam-Webster lists this sense of broody as applicable to women, but the AHD does not. There is also a separate sense ‘contemplative, meditative, introspective’.

  17. Likewise, the condition in a hen is called klukk in Norwegian

    Australian English uses “clucky” for both women and hens.

  18. Trond Engen says

    There is also a separate sense ‘contemplative, meditative, introspective’.

    The Broody Sisters of St. Clara.

  19. But hens always go cluck, just to prove to themselves that they exist or something. The skruk sound for calling chicks is different.

    Not that I think that the hen connection is present in the minds of most people applying the word to women (often including themselves, I should say).

    Verpesjuk sounds vaguely disrespectful, like it’s denying agency to the woman. I don’t get that from skruk, but then I’m an old white male so what do I know.

    I think the corresponding term in Swedish would be bebissugen, hungry for babies. I could put in something here about Swedes denying responsibility for their own actions when hit by various forms of sug, especially sockersuget, but I won’t.

  20. Trond Engen says

    D.M.: I think we have a winner.

    Maybe. To a Norwegian it’s certainly easy to see the generic as head of the compound. But it depends on the history of in French. For this to be the case, it should be as old as requin. It could instead be that was borrowed for “school shark” later, around the time when Dutch borrowed haai, after requin had acquired a more general meaning.

  21. Trond Engen says

    Lars: Verpesjuk sounds vaguely disrespectful, like it’s denying agency to the woman.

    Yes. Although I’ve mostly heard it from young women describing their friends. One even used it of herself, but that was consciously self-deprecating.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I meant to say “consciously over-the-top self-deprecating”.

  23. Trond Engen says

    The word doesn’t seem to exist in le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, neither alone nor as requin-hâ. I think it must be a recent, strictly zoological borrowing from Icelandic.

  24. Alex Knisely says

    “Broody” certainly was part of this farm-reared USA boy’s vocabulary to describe hens that had stolen a nest, were no longer laying — no British ancestry — more broadly used than in the Commonwealth only, I believe.

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