thumb the nose

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Sat May 15 13:12:06 UTC 2010

> All this possibly goes back to an original West Germanic root (of "snoot",
> "snout", "snook", and "nook") whose existence can only (now) be inferred
> from later recorded cognate forms.
> But I'm outside my territory here -- if Amy West is listening, she'd
> probably be able to clarify this.

To carry on from this (since it contextualises my appeal to Amy West).

We seem to be into the semiotics of gesture here, as much as pure (or
impure) linguistics.

The gesture in question is that of placing the thumb to the tip of the nose,
with the remaining fingers of the hand extended, and possible wiggled.

The earliest term for this is "to cock a snook", given in an OED citation
from the late eighteenth century:

snook, n.3 SECOND EDITION 1989

(snuk)  Also snooks. [Of obscure origin.]

    A derisive gesture, = SIGHT n.1 7c. Chiefly in phr. to cock a snook

1791 E. WYNNE Diary 7 Dec. (1935) I. 90 They cock snooks at one on every

This (as Michael Quinion in World Wide Words points out) is later
occasionally transformed into "cocking a snoot" at someone, since "snoot"
(nose) is more familiar than "snook".

But "snook" itself, in the 1791 phrase and elsewhere ...

The earliest appearance of the word in English dates back to the thirteenth

 snook, n.1 SECOND EDITION 1989

north. and Sc. Obs.

Forms: 3 snoc, snoke, 4-5 snuk(e, snwk, 7 snewke. [Of obscure origin: cf.
NOOK n.1]

    A projecting point or piece of land; a promontory.

c1236 Newminster Cartul. (Surtees) 55 In illa parte agri quæ vocatur le

So (it might be argued) a snook is something which sticks out, like a
promontory or nose.

"Snoot" as a term for nose:

snoot, n. SECOND EDITION 1989

(snut)  [dial. var. SNOUT n.1]

    1. = SNOUT n.1 2. dial. and slang.

1861 J. BARR Poems 33 Like harrow teeth they're stickin' out, To catch the
dirt below their snoot.

All this taking us to "snout" (OED2: "snout, n.1 ... 2. Contemptuously: The
nose in man, esp. when large or badly shaped; the face or countenance.
a1300) and "nook" (OED2: "nook, n. DRAFT REVISION Mar. 2010 1. a. A corner
of a thing regarded as a separate portion; a piece, a fragment; a part. Eng.
regional in later use. Now rare. ...  c1300)

So much for snook, snoot, snout, and nook, and my question as to whether
there might be a Common West Germanic form from which all four English words

Further (briefly) ...

This particular <gesture indicating derision> is renamed "giving the five
fingered salute" and "thumbing the nose", and later supplemented by a
<gesture> with a similar implication, where the forefinger is raised and
pointed towards the addressee -- giving someone the finger.

Not to be confused with the gesture in which the forefinger is moved from
side to side, which would constitute "wagging a finger" at someone, possibly
something which occurs when a pupil is given a wigging by the beak.

To move or not to move the fingers?  This might be entitled the Churchillian
Difference, since Winston Churchill was famously photographed on VE Day in
1945 holding his hand aloft with the index and middle fingers raised and
separated -- "We have victory, gentlemen (and ladies)."  If he had then
moved his hand upwards, the gesture would of course have had a quite
distinct sense -- "Up yours, jack."

Thumbs and gestures of derision, and one final locus, this time from _Romeo
and Juliet_ (c. 1595), Act I, scene i:

        SAMPSON: Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a
disgrace to them, if they bear it.

                 Enter ABRAHAM and BALTHASAR

        ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

        SAMPSON: I do bite my thumb, sir.

        ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

        SAMPSON: [Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say ay?

        GREGORY: No.

        SAMPSON: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my
thumb, sir


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