Oh, the shark has such teeth, dear

Whatever the source of the word shark, it was contact with the Americas that brought the category to wide awareness in England.

Antonio Bronic/Reuters
A leopard shark swims at the Aquarium Pula, Croatia, July 25, 2018. What is the real origin of the word "shark"?

In 1569, fishermen were catching mackerel in the English Channel when a huge creature rushed into their nets, almost destroying them. 

They brought it on board and “marveled,” as it was the strangest animal they had ever seen. It was 17 feet long, had three rows of razor-sharp teeth, and ended in a long, powerful tail – so bizarre-looking that it was put on display in a London pub. 

English had no word for such a creature, one of the exhibitors claimed: “There is no proper name for it that I know, but certain men of Captain Hawkins’ call it a Sharke.”

People had been fishing in the British Isles for more than a thousand years – how could this have been the first shark ever caught? “Shark,” it turns out, was a new category of animal, resulting from European voyages of trade and exploration to the Americas.

Along the coasts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, people had long been familiar with sharp-toothed, rough-skinned fish, but they were usually small and known as “dogfish.”

Slave trader John Hawkins was one of the first to bring back news of another kind of creature, “like unto those which we call dogge-fishes” but much bigger and more “ravenous,” eager to bite the legs off anyone who ventured into the sea. As news of this fascinating animal spread, and as British fishermen, in bigger vessels, ventured farther and farther away from the coastline, they realized that there were sharks in British waters, too.

Where does the word shark come from? 

Some etymologists have argued that it derives from xoc, a Mayan word for toothy creatures that seems to have included sharks, crocodiles, and some whales. Captain Hawkins and his men used the word tiberunes as well, which, in a development parallel to English, became Spanish for “large shark” (tiburón), as opposed to the more commonly encountered small sharks, cazones. Tiburon seems to have been the Carib name for shark, so perhaps Europeans simply adopted the words they heard around them to refer to these unfamiliar creatures.

This would be a beautiful etymology, if not for one troublesome elasmobranch. In 1442, Thomas Bekynton recorded that his ship was followed by “a fish called le Shark” as he sailed from England to France. The word then, cannot be of Mayan origin, since this predates the first voyages to the Americas.

What is the real origin of shark? It is a bit of an anticlimax, actually. No one knows.

Whatever the source of the word, though, it was contact with the Americas that brought the category to wide awareness in England, popularizing the large, razor-toothed shark as opposed to the small, harmless dogfish. 

These toothy predators of the sea have been terrifying us ever since.

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