cocking a snook

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The most common name for the gesture formed by holding the thumb to the tip of the nose and spreading the fingers. Sometimes varied by waggling the fingers, or by adding the second hand (a ‘double snook’). Also called ‘taking a sight’, ‘cocking a snoot’, or the ‘Shanghai gesture’, its meaning ranges from mocking to rude, although in the present day its use is considered childish. Unlike most gestures, cocking a snook is found, with a similar meaning, across the whole of Europe. The gesture is described in the writings of François Rabelais in 1532, but its first known unmistakable depiction is in La Fête des fous, a drawing by Pieter Brueghel of 1560. It is not clear how far back the gesture dates in England. References are relatively common in England in the 19th century, almost always referring to schoolboys, and Hone (1832: 33) writes that it ‘suddenly arose as a novelty within the last twenty years among the boys of the metropolis’. A correspondent in N&Q (5s: 3 (1875), 298), however, gives a reference to a 1702 publication. The English Theophrastus.


Morris, 1979: 25–42;Archer Taylor, The Shanghai Gesture (FF Communications No. 166, 1956);N&Q 5s:2 (1874), 166, 234, 255–6, 299;5s:3 (1875), 39, 119, 298, 376;correspondence in The Times (9–23 July 1936).

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