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!

8 Responses to “Xook”

  1. Ann M Nalley Says:

    The Spanish word for shark is “el tiburón.” Doesn’t sound like “xook” to me! What a great post. I think I’m going to drive my nine year old crazy today by running around the house yelling, “Xook! Xook!” This will be especially irritating since we don’t live anywhere near water. Or perhaps I’d better have another cup of coffee and become more civilized. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say. Smiles, Ann

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Ann beat me to it. I suspect tiburon is rather old, too, because there are some places on coastal California with that name. Of course, there’s also a town named Manteca, and you can go to translate.google.com to find out about that one.

    Aside from Xook being shark, my first question is “which kind of shark, dammit?” From what little I’ve seen, Europeans didn’t much pay attention to sharks until the Age of Exploration, when Linnaeus introduced this idea of naming things. Sea monster covered it pretty well. But that doesn’t mean that Xook was necessarily generic for shark, or even that it is now in modern Mayan languages. Heck, English now has dogfish, mako, great white, and hammerhead, and I’ll bet you recognized them all as sharks.

    More rain! I was singing “I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” And I got my wish! Happy New Years!

  3. Alan Robson Says:

    Actually I think you meant to say snark. Of course, given that it might perhaps be a boojum, I think I’ll just softly and suddenly vanish away…


  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I loved Ann M. Nalley’s response! I can picture going around the house yelling “Xook! Xook!” with the “Jaws” theme playing in the background.
    Or maybe a “Saturday Night Live” re-run: a knock at the door. “Who’s
    there?” “…Land Xook…”

  5. Barbara Joan Says:

    Do you think the Spanish just misunderstood the accent?

  6. Susan Says:

    Interesting observation! Happy New Year Jane and Jim!

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Given that the word was adapted into English, not Spanish, I can’t say anything about accent, but “Sh-ook” and “Shark” aren’t any further apart than say “lariat” ‘(an old-west word for “lasso”) and “la riata,” the original Spanish.

    English likes taking words from other languages, adapting them, and in the process mispronouncing them… And we won’t talk about the English speakers who then scorn other people for not being able to speak English “right”!

    I bet we could get hundreds of examples just here on this “blog.”

    (Blog is a word I personally dislike! It sounds so ugly).

    It’s New Year’s Eve. Jim and I are wandering next door and eating pizza with the neighbors. I hope all of you have a great time — and a safe celebration.

  8. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    mispronunciations of words from other languages…
    Loss Annjuhliss (Los Angeles)
    kuhmonuh (kimono)
    soonami (tsunami)
    harry karry (hara kiri)

    that’s just off the top of my head. There are LOTS more!

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