Phrases on Fridays: The Word “Shark” Might Be an English Anomaly

In honor of Shark Week, let’s take a look at the etymology of everyone’s favorite aquatic death machine, the shark.

Carcharodon means "OH CRAP PLEASE DON'T EAT ME!" in Greek.
Carcharodon means “OH CRAP PLEASE DON’T EAT ME!” in Greek.

The origin of the word “shark” has one of two possible sources: European etymology, which first defined “sharks,” as being of a shifty, cheating, thieving nature (then later applied to the animal) or as a derivation of the word “xoc” (pronounced “shock”), a Mayan term.

Obviously, the use of “xoc” as a prelude to “shark,” is far more interesting, as “shark” would become the only modern English word to hail from Mayan parentage. But there’s some hard evidence that would seem to support this, as writer para_sight summarizes in an article from Deep Sea News:

There’s lots of usage examples to support the idea that [“xoc”] means sharks, though, including “xoc yee halal” which are arrows with sharks teeth for points, and “uayab xoc” which is a sort of demon or were-shark, part man and part shark.

There’s still the lingering problem of how the word “xoc” making the jump from Mayan to English, but an unfortunate shark-human encounter may have been the culprit:

Tom Jones [published 1983] suggests that a shark frenzy feeding on the unfortunate victims of [a] battle – and on those who died of hunger and disease on the crowded [ship] Judith over subsequent days – might have created an indelible impression on the English (only 15 of whom made it back to Cornwall [from the Caribbean]), enough to cement in their lexicon the local name for these demons of the sea.

More food for thought: the genus name for sharks is Carcharodon, which, in Greek, simply means, “sharp teeth.”