Culture Nerd #1: Why is there no European cross-linguistic word for Shark?

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A while ago, my sister sent me a text asking if I knew why the word for Shark was so different in different European languages. It’s not like Cow (Vacca, Vache, Vaca, Krava, Baqra; and then Ku, Koh, Koe and Cow in Germanic Languages). No, Shark in, for example: French (requin) and Spanish (tiburón); and German(Hai) and English (Shark) are seemingly completely unrelated. Not to be undone, I decided to put my linguistics degree to good use, and to do a little digging. I originally posted about it in a thread on my twitter, but here it is in it’s full blog-shaped glory:


*If you do not want to see pics of cute and freaky sharks, scroll no further*


European Words for Shark

Germanic Languages – Hai

Secondly you actually CAN see trends when you consider language groups – many Germanic languages share Hai based words (Iceland, Latvia, Macedonia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, and of course, Germany.

Etymology of Shark

European Words for Shark

European Words for Shark












This ‘Hai’ form comes from the Old Norse (viking) word Hákal/Hár from Icelandic Influence. The viking shark is likely what is now called the Greenland Shark. Many Eastern European Germanic languages have shark as аку́ла – pronounced akúla, which may seem different but is actually also decended from the Old Norse (Bulgarian, Russian, Belarusian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian, Ukranian)

The ancient viking Hai

Greenland Shark says “Haiiiiiii” – photo cred: Photoshot/Zuma

French, Polish and Lithuanian – Requiem for a dream

Requin is seen in the Polish, and Lithiuanian – possibly borrowed from the French. The Etymology of Requin is very vague, though the extra AF Rey (1992) suggests it comes from ‘Requiem’ (yes, as in funeral song). It has been noted by Joe Castro in 2002 that this may “be too good to be true” (Budker, 1971)

Italian, Slovak and Czech: Fish in Squalor

Squalo, in the Italian is straight from the latin, but whether the term for Dirtyness (squalor) or fishyness from Sharks came first is unclear. Squalor only seems to have face value phonetic similarities to Žralok in Slovak and Czech. But never trust phonetics (or sharks), because apparently Squalo is also the precursor to the English for “Whale.”


Side fact: if you Google translate the whole Czec wikipedia page on sharks it has the subheadings I would personally like to have on my page when I become famous: 

Etymology of the word shark research

The google translate of the Czech wikipedia page about sharks is #Goals

Greek: Shark teeth

Karcharais/Carcharais (the Greek in the latin alphabet) is perhaps a phonetic link to the English Shark – softening of the initial sound to a sibilant and hardening of the Ch sound through the Germanic languages. The original meaning links to Teeth, Sharpness, and meanness. It also refers to a bad person, or a mean person you shouldnt trust – a scoundrel or a trickster. The german word for this type of bad person is “shurke,” and that’s why we still call it “Sharking” to be lurking or stealing from someone. However, we dont know whether the word came straight from the greek, or if it picked up similar characteristics later. Also, “Sharke” was reportedly used by Thomas Beckington in English in 1442 in this sense.


Colonialism and Sharks

HOWEVER never underestimate the reach of European Colonialism. For example: where is ‘Tiburón’ in Spanish, and the Portugese ‘Tuberão’ from, you wonder? Well. European Spanish actually has a different word for small sharks: cazones, because the ‘Tiburónes’ (ie. big ol’ boys) were first spotted in the Carribean.

Ti – meaning ground, and burón – meaning fish, came from the native Carib people. Kind enough to warn the arriving Spanish murderers and slavers that they did not want to swim off the sides of their boats.

There is a similar suggestion about ‘Shark’ in English written in this piece by Jose Castro in 2002, who claims Shark did NOT show up in this form in the English language until it was used by the crew of a slaver named Hawkins to describe this thresher shark that washed up the Thames in 1592.

José castro's work on the etymology of the word shark

Thresher Shark that washed up in The Thames in 1569

Where were Hawkin’s crew getting this word from? No one checked at the time – probably more interested in the poor Shark – but Castro explores the route the crew of Hawkin’s boat took, after they were ambushed by the spanish and set adrift up the shore of what is now Mexico.

In one of the indigenous languages they encountered – Yucatec Myan – the word for Shark to be Xoc (pronounced ‘Choke’). Xoc is quoted from several different indigenous languages in colonialist dictionaries from the late 1500s as meaning Shark, Whale, as well as “sharp thing” and the Shark Teeth used for arrowheads. Alaistair Dove (2010) summarises Tom Jones’ (not that one) research into they Myan glyphs (pictoral language) by saying:

“I could summarise by saying that at narrowest the word refers specifically to sharks as we know them, and at broadest to an ill-defined group of toothy aquatic animals that might also include large fish, crocodiles and toothed whales, in both fresh and salt water.”

Phonetically, Xoc is similar enough – or as similar as the Greek – and these encounters happened around the time the word began to appear in dictionaires back in Europe.

The Mexican Etymology of Shark in English

Mayan Glyphs for Xoc/Shark – From Deep Sea News

After the battle, the ships got lost, and were ravaged by hunger and Shark attacks, so that of the 200 men that set out, only 12 returned home. Is this enough men to spread a word throughout a population? Perhaps with the backing of a similar word from ancient greek.


Big Dog is always right

Mostly, some languages just translate Shark as Big Fish, or Fish-dog. For example, Môrski pas/pes, amp, kelb il-bahar, these all equal Sea Dog, or Dog-Fish, as we still say to this day. I don’t really understand why Europeans seem to have unanimously decided that Sharks look like dogs – or why we have been so unanimously lazy that we couldn’t think of anything better to call them, but there you go. Maybe they’re just mostly brown and close to the ground in Europe – we don’t have too many Hammer-heads (though, again, imaginatively named.)

In general, this post is just a little too small to talk about the variety of even one word over one continent. I’m sorry for not going into detail for all the languages – some have very little content in English, and a few I can’t seem to find any etymology at all. Goodnight!


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