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I've been using this expression all my adult life but have no idea what it means or where it originates.

Google searches lead me to the description of it being to do with putting your thumb on nose and wiggling four fingers. This is not an entirely satisfying conclusion to my quest. Can anyone elaborate?

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Somewhat randomly the other weekend, while on a visit to a farm with my five-year old, it occurred to me that the 'cock' part of 'cock a snoot/snook' might refer to the similarity between four wiggling fingers and a cock's comb. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comb_(anatomy) –  5arx Apr 26 '13 at 11:27

4 Answers 4

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From the Phrase Finder:

The general understanding of what's meant by 'cock a snook' is the spread hand with thumb on the nose, preferably with crossed eyes, waggling fingers and any other annoying gesticulation that comes to mind at the time. It's what the Americans call 'the five-fingered salute'.

So, it looks like this:

enter image description here

Hope that image helped you visualize, as well as the description 'crossed eyes, waggling fingers...". Very satisfying! jks.

The origin of "snook", is the word "snook"! "Snook" means:

a gesture of defiance, disrespect, or derision.

"Cock" here means to lift up, as in lift up your hand, or "cock your rifle".

So, its origin just comes from saying "Lift up a snook"

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Etymonline has this reference:

snoot "the nose," 1861, originally a Scottish variant of snout.

This would lead one to believe that it means "to cock one's nose" at something, to affect an air (and posture) of disdain. However, WorldWideWords says this is all balderdash, and in discussing one of the expression's variants ("cock a snook") they say:

The truth is, we have no idea at all where this phrase comes from. The gesture of derision it encapsulates is that of putting one’s thumb to one’s nose and extending the fingers. Waggling them is optional but greatly improves the effectiveness of the insult. The gesture is widespread but names for it vary: cocking a snook is mainly the British name for what Americans, I think, sometimes describe as a five-fingered salute. Heaven knows what the notably blunt Australians call it.

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There is actually a tattoo shop I frequently pass with this name, I always just thought it to mean 'get a look [at that]!', as in the slang from my area of 'take a deek', so 'cock a snook [at this art]!' Our preconceived associations certainly can lead us down the garden path... –  Grant Thomas Jul 5 '11 at 11:08

This is more of a comment than an answer, but it won't fit in a comment. Looking through Google books, I found the slang word "snook" defined in two dictionaries. From the royal dictionary abridged (1802)

To snook: être aux aguets pour tâcher d'attraper quelque chose.

which (my possibly poor translation) means "to be on the lookout to try to catch some thing." This seemed to me a very strange definition to have a word for, but from Dictionarium Brittanicum (1736) we have

To Snook, to lie lurking for a thing.

Essentially the same definition. I don't know how you could get from there to "cock a snook", though.

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The NOAD reports that the phrase (chiefly British) cock a snook means "place one's hand so that the thumb touches one's nose and the fingers are spread out, in order to express contempt;" it is also used with the meaning of "openly show contempt or a lack of respect for someone or something."

He spent a lifetime cocking a snook at the art world.

As for the origin, the dictionary reports it is late 18th century, but the origin is unknown.

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protected by tchrist Feb 10 '13 at 23:37

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