An Etymological Curiosity: The Shark

Published on Thursday, 25 February 2016

So I have come across an interesting word in English: "Shark." All the (highly reputable) etymological resources I have available to me say that the origin is unknown. Perhaps this isn’t such a mystery as they would claim. As sharks are not common in the North Sea or waters around the UK, the first recorded use of the word “shark” in English was that of adventurer John Hawkins displaying the carcass of one in London in 1565 after his journey to South America. Interestingly, the secondary meaning of the word, to indicate a swindler, appears in print as early as 1599.

Scholars of Proto Indo-European have determined that the origins of the core language group started somewhere west of the Caspian sea and spread to the European and Indian subcontinents (without going into details, the evidence of this is that common cognates across the language group deal fairly exclusively with concepts familiar to an agrarian people who spent little time at sea).

So it seems reasonable that the word for Shark would be divergent among peoples who might encounter them after the migration from central Europe.

There are three distinct roots that form the Romance languages’ words for shark: French and Romainain: le raquin, rechin; Italian and Latin: lo squalo, squalus; Spanish and Portuguese: el tiburón, o tubarão, (formerly English speakers used tiburon). This word appears to be borrowed from the Carib word for the fish.

Among all the Germanic languages (and also Finish and Estonian), the word for shark is pronounced hai or something similar . I’d love to know if anyone with access to a German etymological dictionary might bring light to this word’s origin.

Among the slavic languages there is predictable disagreement since so many of them are land-locked and have historically had trade connections to different regions where the word and fish might be introduced. I’d be keen to know what a Russian etymological dictionary says of the origins of their word might be (pronounced akula).

The Farsi (an Indo-European language) word is identical to the Arabic (Semitic language) pronounced kwsih mahy.

The Greek word is pronounced karcharías. Both the greek and Russian words start to give a glimpse to the origins of the English word. As the ka-k is there, the Russians may have dropped the “r” and the “k” in Greek might have morphed to “sh” in English.

But this leads to the Indian subcontinent. Across both the Dravidic (including Telugu) and Indic (including Hindu and Marathi) language groups, the word is pronounced shark.

Where did the word come from? One theory is that the word comes from the Mayan word for shark (xoc). Which makes considerable sense, or were there (South Asian) Indian sailors on Hawkins’s voyage?

So I think the key here is to figure out if shark was used in the Indian subcontinent before England began trading there. It seems unlikely they wouldn’t have their own ancient word for shark, as there are plenty of sharks in the Indian Ocean. If so, why would English etymological dictionaries ignore this as a possibility when the whole discovery of the Indo-European language group was the discovery of numerous cognates between the ancient languages of Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit? Did the English bring the word to the Indian subcontinent? That seems unlikely.

Is there anyone here with access to an etymological dictionary from an Indic or Dravidic language?


Google Translate (of course)

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition.

Dictionnaire étymologique, LaRousse (though it provides no help as the word does not appear in my edition).