This past week while we were in Texas, Jim’s folks invited us to go with them
to see an exhibition called “Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea” at the Kimbell Art Museum.
We enjoyed the exhibition overall, although I will admit to a personal dislike for people who write captions telling you what you’re supposed to be seeing.
A fictional example: “This graceful figure holds out a basket of rolled tortillas in a welcoming fashion.” I look at the figure. It seems rather lumpish to me. Yes. It’s holding a basket and I’m willing to admit the contents may indeed be tortillas. However, I see nothing “welcoming” about the way the basket is being held. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the figure is not even holding them “out.” They seem tucked close to the body to me.
Leaving my complaints about captions aside, it was an interesting show. Art ranging from pottery to stone carvings to miniature figures had been chosen for their association with the water creatures, motifs, and the like. There were some interesting audio-visual additions as well.
One thing left us rather puzzled. Repeatedly, the helpful caption-writer informed us that sharks were called “xook.” (The “x” is pronounced like a harsh “sh” and the “oo” like the “oe” in “shoe.” English is a weird language; so are transliteration conventions).
The caption writer then happily told us (repeatedly) that the English word “shark” is derived from “xook.” I looked at Jim and said, “But what did people call sharks before then? I mean, aren’t sharks common world-wide?” Jim agreed that they were and surely there were other words in use.
When we got home, I looked up “shark” in the OED. It listed the first occupancy of “shark” as 1569, but the origin as uncertain. Jim checked an on-line etymological dictionary, which agreed both with the date in the 1560’s and with the uncertain origin. Once again, it seems that our friendly caption writer had been over-ambitious.
However, the caption writer may have been right. Cortez arrived in Central Mexico in 1520. The Spanish were involved in trying to conquer the Maya by the mid-1520’s. There are lots of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and it’s possible that helpful local residents did a lot of yelling warnings of “Xook! Xook!” and the word caught on with the Spanish.
Not being a Spanish-speaker, I can’t tell you what word the Spanish used for “shark,” but the English of the same time period most likely called those big carnivorous sea-creatures “dogfish.” Certainly, “xook” or “shark” would be a lot quicker to say and not as likely to be misunderstood. I can imagine it would quickly become fashionable.
Yelling “Shark!” rather than “Dogfish!” might even have saved a few lives…
Happy New Year to you all!