Posted by TheFallen on March 03, 2003
In Reply to: Re: Cocking a snook posted by Lewis on March 03, 2003
: : : : "...[the Oxford
Union's] support for Amercia was just a way of cocking
: : : : a snook at the French." (New York Times, 2/28/3)
: : : : How do you get from "cocking" and "snook" to "thumbing your nose"?
: : : As this one's mostly British, I've deferred to our friends on Greenwich time, but they haven't kprovided an explanation. Webster's Second Unabr. defines "snook" as the nose-thumbing gesture, origin uncertain. Cocking one would be aiming it at somebody.
: : I thought I'd posted a reply to this one but can't see it. Cocking a snook describes a very old British insult by gesture.
: : To deal with it the wrong way round, the suspicion is that "snook" is a corruption of "snoot" which itself is a British regional variation on "snout". All makes sense so far...
: : As for "cocking", if you think about how the gesture is made - placing the thumb on the tip of one's noise, with fingers splayed pointing upwards and then waggled - I'm pretty certain that the "cocking" part comes from coxcomb (or cock's comb if you'd rather), because visually it is a little reminiscent of a rooster's comb. A coxcomb was also an old word for jester or fool, so-called again because of the shape of his cap and bells.
: : Hence cocking a snook - originally showing someone you think they're a fool, and from there, just being defiant and impertinent.
: In Northumberland a 'sneck' is a dialect word for nose - which as you say is likely based on 'snout'. To cock means to pull back and there is that rude gesture in which the tip of the nose is pulled back to resemble a pig's snout. The cockscomb gesture implies that the person is being 'cuckolded' i.e. that their partner is being unfaithful and that everybody knows. It seems a variation on wearing cuckolds horns - i.e. having something obvious that you can't see, but everybody else can.
You're right that in a few European countries to this day, "making the horns at someone" is a gesture of insult, originally implying that someone is being cuckolded, but these days more liable to mean that the target is just dense. I believe that the gesture is more normally made by placing the middle and ring finger tips onto the thumb, extending the index and little finger out straight, and jabbing the resultant hand formation at the insultee palm-downwards. Whether there's a connection between cuckolds and cocking a snook or not seems to be a matter lost in the mists of time.