The comment thread on this post quickly mutated into a discussion of the etymology of the word shark; commenter dearieme quoted Michael D. Coe as saying “Tom Jones has recently proved that ‘xoc’ [in Maya] is the origin of the English word ‘shark’,” I asked if anyone had access to Jones’s paper, and the learned and industrious MMcM picked up the ball and ran with it, leaving a series of comments marking his researches and culminating in one so meaty and informative (“I will take a stab at summarizing the case for Mayan xoc as the source of English shark…”) that I can’t leave it in the obscurity of that thread but have to give it its own spotlight here. Everything that follows is his; there are many links that I am not reproducing because you can easily find them in his original comment:

There are sharks all over the world. But the big ones are in the warm places. There are sharks in the Mediterranean and they were known to the Ancients. Pliny describes canīcula or canis marinus. (Latin English) Greek had a word καρχαρίας for some kind of shark, on account of its saw-like teeth. Salt water sharks are even more sensitive to salinity than other fishes and stay away from rivers, where the Europeans of the Middle Ages did most of their fishing. As a result, when the Spanish encountered new giant sharks in the New World, they borrowed the Arawak word tiburon (Spanish tiburón, Portuguese tuburão, Catalan tauró). This word passed to the English for a while. Then, suddenly, in 1569, a broadside appears in London advertising a big dead fish, “Ther is no proper name for it that I knowe but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses, doth call it a Sharke. And it is to bee seene in London, at the red Lyon, in Fletestreete.” (EEBO) So, it appears that the new word shark was picked up by John Hawkins’ men on his disastrous last voyage. (OT, but to be clear: Hawkins was a slave trader and one of his backers was the Queen. In addition to parrots and new words, he mostly brought back Spanish gold and silver, gotten by hardly better means.) For a time, both words existed, but as general knowledge of sharks increased, it was shark that won in English.

In tracking it, the first thing to note is that there are several senses to the word, and perhaps several words. In addition to the noun shark, ‘a fish’, there is the obsolete noun shark, ‘a cheat or parasite’, and the associated verb shark, ‘to swindle or sponge off of’. There is ample room for metaphors in both directions, so the two words are never fully separated. In fact, the earliest occurrence of the verb is in the 1596 play Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (part of which might have been written by Shakespeare) and involves a play on words with the fishy sense. (text)

An historical survey of etymologies:
* 1668 Wilkins An Essay Toward a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (scan): connects a specific carcharias name with shark.
* 1689 Skinner Gazophylacium Anglicanum (EEBO): person < search < chercher.
* 1721 Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (not online?): ditto verb; fish < scearan ‘to cut to pieces’.
* 1783 George Lemon English Etymology (text): < carcharias ‘canis marinus’.
* 1828 Webster (text): < carcharius.
* 1836 David Booth Analytical Dictionary (text): doubts the derivation from carcharias because of the nearly obsolete verb.
* 1890 A. S. Palmer Folk-Etymology (text): fish < carcharus; person < German Schurke.
* 1893 Skeat (text): supposed from carcharus, with a missing intermediate OF form; Schurke vowel unexplained.
* 1903 Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (online): intermediate OF between carcharus and shark missing; perhaps person sense came first.
* 1958 Partridge: fish < person < Schurke.
* 1989 The OED (s.v.): points out that the fish cannot come from the verb, because of the allusion in its first use (above); that shirk meant almost the same thing, as did German schurke, calling that a not unlikely source, with assimilation from the fish; and that there are likely two words involved with so many mixed notions that they are hard to distinguish.

Some relevant texts:
* 1525 A partial French translation of Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s voyage : tiburins for tiburoni. The entire Italian original was not published until the end of the 18th century. (Italian; French; English preview)
* 1526 Oviedo’s Sumario de la natural historia de las indias (snippet): first use of tiburón in Spanish.
* c1530 Bartolomé de las Casas’ Apologética historia de las indias (snippet): explicitly indicates the origin, “que los indios llamaron tiburones.”
* 1555 Eden’s translation in Decades of the Newe World (EEBO; text): first use of tiburon in English.
* 1554 Guillaume Rondelet’s Libri de piscibus marinis (scan): De Tiburone.
* 1558 His successor Laurent Joubert’s translation Histoire entière des poissons (scan).
* 1585 Mendoza Historia de China (Spanish; 1588 translation: EEBO; reprint): still says, “llamado … Tyburon” / “called tiburones,” indicating that the word is not fully assimilated.
* 1590 José de Acosta Historia natural y moral de las Indias (scan; modern translation preview).
* 1604 English translation of that (EEBO): “incredible rauening of the Tiburons, or sharkes.”
* 1589 John Hawkins in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (EEBO; text): “many sharkes or Tiburons.” (I must also shamelessly point out that there is an important quote about potatoes on the facing page.)
* 1593 Richard Hawkins’ Observations (EEBO; text): “The Sharke or Tiberune, is a Fish like vnto those which wee call Dogge-fishes, but that he is farre greater.”

A good deal of the space in Jones 85 is used to present epigraphic and linguistic evidence to place the word xoc in time and space. This is to be expected, since it was a conference of Mayanists. But I will just skip to the punch line: at that time, along the coast from Río Dulce to Río Grijalva, one would encounter that word to designate a shark. This is where the 86 paper would impact the English etymology, if it dramatically revised the distribution. But as I said in earlier comments, it does not.

So, this leaves open the question that is the main weakness of the whole argument. How did English slavers in 1568 pick up a Yucatec Maya word that does not ever make it into Spanish? The earliest recorded English presence in the Yucatán is William Parker’s 1597 attack on Campeche. (EEBO; text; JSTOR on the history)

Here Jones presents an essentially fictionalized account of picking up a resident Spanish pilot on board the Jesus from Campeche to San Juan de Ulua. And points out that at the end of his 1569 True Declaration of the Troublesome Voyage, Hawkins declines to elaborate “all the miseries and troublesome affayres of this sorowefull voyadge.” (EEBO; preview)

Update. In this 2013 thread, Piotr Gąsiorowski points out that the Mayan etymology of shark is untenable: “Quite apart from formal problems (too early for hypercorrect rhoticity), shark is now first attested from 1442, nine years before Columbus was born.”

Further update (Oct. 2021). See now Dave Wilton’s thorough account of the word’s history in English at Wordorigins.org. (Still no news on the etymology.)


  1. John Emerson says

    OT as per LH policy: Sharks are rich in urea (~piss) — it functions to balance osmotic pressure against seawater. You therefore have to prepare them for cooking in a special way. I failed to do so once and got mildly nauseated. The End.

  2. Roger Depledge says

    It so happens that modern non-rhotic BrE shark is pronounced rather like modern AmE shock. Perhaps more attention should be paid to the quality of the Mayan vowel in xoc and the rhoticity of Elizabethan English.

  3. Maybe someday I could be like MMcM…

  4. Roger: The same thought occurred to me; I’m pretty sure r’s were strongly pronounced in the 16th century, which is at least as big a problem with the etymology as the transmission chain.
    Conrad: Then you’ll have to stop getting your etymologies from Isidore of Seville, won’t you?

  5. The correct Portuguese word for shark is tubarão not tuburão.

  6. “from Isidore of Seville”
    But he’s so old!

  7. John Emerson:
    To equate urea to urine is misleading, to put it kindly. Take a look at its many uses, for example on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urea

  8. David Marjanović says

    I wonder where German Hai and French requin come from…
    Uses of urea? The most beautiful one is for annihilating nitrite out of solutions. You pour the white powder in by the spoonful, and it disappears, producing lots of bubbles. 🙂

  9. John Emerson says

    Well, “~” is not “=”. Urea is present in urine, and to me, not appetizing.
    The only exception is good gorgonzola cheese, with it’s faint whiff of the barn floor. I do not share L. Bloom’s taste for kidneys.

  10. John Emerson says


  11. That’s right, Luguburt. As confirmed by the Wikipedia article you direct us to, pure urea is a white, tasteless, odourless, solid, with a melting point of 132.7 °C. It is not the urea in urine that is offensive to the senses. There is a, um, cock-tale of chemicals in mammalian urine to account for its distincktive odour, including some ammonia (more strongly in the human infant product, I seem to recall). And the Wikipedia article reminds us that fish generally, including sharks, excrete ammonia instead of urea.

  12. What about the shark in loanshark? That seems closer in sense to the obsolete English word shark than the fish.
    OTOH, both words have a predatory sense, and metaphorically, a shark is much like a shark, and vice versa.
    Is there a recognized phenomenon in which two unrelated yet similar words can converge into one modern sense? And if so, how much sense does it make to claim a single etymology? It seems to me that there a many examples where one could claim a “forked” etymology, if I may call it that.
    (Re. sharks and ammonia: I find that a citrus marinade takes away the ammonia flavor, but if you’re going to deep-fry the shark, buttermilk is good. Mmmmm…. shark.)

  13. Thanks. It’s mostly tracking down the articles and works they reference online and in Boston libraries.
    rhoticity: Jones mentions Thompson‘s classic demonstration of what he called “rebus writing” with xoc ‘shark’ and ‘count’. This book goes one further and says that Thompson claimed the etymology in his Maya Hieroglyphs Without Tears. If so, it might be relevant (to the development of the theory, not its historical truth) that he was a Londoner. The book is a Cold War oddity, in part his last salvo against the Russian phonetic scheme. Coe, who started us on this shark hunting expedition, compares it to the works of Athanasius Kircher (who might be a hero of regular LH readers), since it’s nicely designed (by the BM) but wrong. I thought I used to have a copy, but it’s not on the right shelf and LT says I don’t. Well, the internet will sell me one with more than half going to postage.
    tubarão: Thank you. I felt comfortable fixing obvious errors and ones where I had the text in front of me. But here I wasn’t sure of historical or dialectal issues. No doubt it’s just Jones’ typo.
    requin: Castro mentions the theory that it’s from requiem, because ‘Quand il a saisi un homme … il ne reste plus qu’à faire chanter le Requiem pour le repos de l’âme de cet homme là’. (Rey. Le dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise. 1992 p. 1178) Other possibilities are some form of chien.
    Hai: There’s a cognate hár in Old Norse.

  14. That sounds like one for my shelf…

  15. loan-shark is indeed an interesting case.
    The OED makes a distinction between the predatory sense of metaphorical sharks (1 sense 2) and the sponging parasite (2). The first quotation it has is from 1905, in a temperance parody that plays on the nautical sense. That would be more conclusive of the coining if it weren’t possible to find earlier uses in Google Books from 1905, 1904, and 1891. (Dates aren’t reliable in Google Books, but the title pages look legit.) But it is one more thing in favor of the metaphor, if it is even possible to distinguish.

  16. Jerry Gordon says

    This is my first visit to this site (I followed a link from wordorigins.org). I have nothing to add to the etymology of ‘shark,’but I do have a question for MMcM: Do your friends call you “2900”?

  17. 2900? Would you believe that joke’s thirty years old? Maybe Gosper started it. So I did put it in the ITS nickname field. But no, not really.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Wow, thanks.

  19. The most exotic etymology I can think of is “sack”, supposedly from the Assyrian.

  20. You’d better drink some sack and put the vowels back in your cheeks.

  21. Th Hbrws and rbs r rght bt vwls.

  22. How are the ‘orbs’ right about vowels?? Or did you mean ‘ribs’? Either way you’re just babeling.

  23. How are the ‘orbs’ right about vowels?? Or did you mean ‘rubes’? Either way you’re just babeling.

  24. “and” S/B “nd”. W rgrt th rrr.
    Rth s nt-smtc.

  25. Cmpltly drppng ll vwls s myb nt a gd ide, bt t’s srprsng hw lgbl Englsh wth mst vwls drppd s (tht s f mny intl and sm fnl vwls r stll wrttn).

  26. m nt nt-smtc! ‘m vry dfntly phlsmtc. th prblm s tht f yr gnn drp vwls, y hv t pt n th nqqd. bt wht nxt, shll w dpt a syllbry? r cnfrm?

  27. Ggll

  28. Rrrrgh!

  29. See Update for more on the word’s history.

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