14 Terrifying Terms to Know for the Return of Jaws

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Forty years ago today, Jaws da-dum'd its way into theaters, and will be making its return later this month. Most of us are familiar with the famous catch phrases (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “That’s some bad hat, Harry”) but how about the shark, shipping, and other terminology? Here are 14 to sink your teeth into.


“Amity, as you know,” says Mayor Vaughn, “means friendship.” Amity Island is a fictional setting in what is actually Martha’s Vineyard. In Peter Benchley’s novel, Amity is a seaside town on Long Island. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the Amity of Jaws and Amityville, New York, the setting of the 1974 Amityville murders and the subsequent book and movie.

The word amity ultimately comes from the Latin word amare, “to love.”


While you might think shark, a swindling cheat, comes from shark the apex predator (that is, an animal at the top of the food chain), the two words might have originated completely separately.

Shark the animal might have come from xoc, a Mayan word for the carnivorous fish, while the shady sense could be from the German Schork, a variant of Schurke, which means scoundrel or villain.

To confuse things even more, shark meaning "lawyer" does come from the animal, and shark meaning “to live by one’s wits” comes from yet another word, shirk, meaning "to avoid work."


Oceanographer Matt Hooper calls the shark a squalus, which is Latin for, well, shark. Squalus also means “filthy” and gives us the word squalid, dirty and rundown.


Hooper describes the attack on the ill-fated skinny dipper as a “non-frenzy” feeding—in other words, a focused attack by a solo squalus rather than a frenetic onslaught by an entire shiver.

Feeding frenzy also refers to any intense group feeding, whether by fish or other animals, as well as a figurative feeding, such as that by the press.


scull is a long, spoon-bladed oar, or the act of propelling a boat with such an oar, as Hooper tells some nautical novices to "scull it out of here."

The origin of the word is unknown. One theory is that it’s related to skull-bowl or skull-goblet due to the oar's shallow dip, although, as the OED says, “this seems very improbable.”


To test his seamanship skills, Quint asks Hooper to tie him a sheepshank, a knot used for shortening a rope instead of cutting it (although some think Hooper actually tied a trumpet knot).

As for what a sheepshank knot has to do with a sheep or its shank, the answer is: nothing. According to the OED, sheepshank might have been a “printer’s or clerical error” for what was supposed to be sheer- or shear-shank. To shear, of course, means to cut.

Nae sheepshank is an old Scots phrase meaning someone or something “of no small importance,” implying the apparent importance of a good sheep’s leg.


When Quint tells Hooper he's “just supercargo,” he's not saying the oceanographer is very large merchandise. A supercargo is an officer on a merchant ship in charge of buying and selling cargo. In other words, not a true seaman, at least not in Quint's eyes.


Orca is both the name of Quint's boat and a killer whale, which happens to be the great white's only predator (besides humans, of course). An earlier form of orca was orc or ork, which comes from the French orque, used "vaguely of sea monsters." An army of particularly hideous orcs feature prominently in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.


“Chumming?” asks a landlubber. “What in the hell’s that?” It's the act of throwing chum, or oily fish guts, in the water as bait. This sense might come from the Scottish chum, “food,” while chum meaning friend might be short for chamber-fellow or chamber-mate, old-timey words for roommate.


Hooper says what keeps the great white swimming in Amity's waters is territoriality, or the presence of food—in this case, people. A stricter definition of territoriality is the way animals behave to defend their territory. Some might fight while others use less dangerous methods such as leaving behind their scent, vocalizing, or visual displays.


“It's a Carcharodon carcharias,” Hooper tells the disbelieving mayor. “It's a Great White.”

Great white sharks, according to National Geographic, are the “largest predatory fish on Earth.” They average 15 feet in length but can grow more than 20, compared to the tiger shark, the species caught by clueless fishermen in the film, which grows 10 to 14 feet. Great whites can also sense a single drop of blood in 25 gallons of water and can detect small amounts from up to three miles away.


But are great whites really man-eaters? Nope. In fact, no sharks are. Sharks biting humans is usually a case of mistaken identity. In Australia a few years ago, rumors swirled of a man-killing “rogue” shark. However, scientists concluded that the attacks actually came from three separate sharks migrating toward their natural food source—whales.


A rogue is a shark that swims alone, Hooper says. It's also a wild and destructive animal living apart from the herd. The earliest usage was around 1835 with rogue elephant, which in 1920 gained the figurative sense of a person who behaves in an antisocial or destructive manner.

The most famous rogue shark is arguably the great white responsible for the 1916 attacks in Jersey Beach. Although often thought of as the inspiration for Jaws, Benchley has said otherwise, and at least one expert questions if the shark captured really was a great white and if human remains were really found in its stomach.


Shark attacks come in two categories: provoked and unprovoked. Of unprovoked attacks, there are three types: hit-and-run, sneak, and bump-and-bite.

Hit-and-runs occur near beaches, where sharks sometimes mistake humans for fish. The shark takes a bite, and—probably realizing the human isn’t a fish—releases, then swims off. Injuries are usually not life-threatening.

In the sneak attack, the shark, previously unseen, emerges from deeper, murky waters, and in bump-and-bite, the shark bumps the victim before attacking.

The species of sharks most responsible for unprovoked attacks are the tiger, bull, and great white. However, while great whites make up one-third to one-half of the over 100 shark-on-human attacks every year, most injuries are non-fatal, and researchers are finding that great whites are only “sampling” humans out of curiosity, and not preying on them. But don't tell that to the residents of Amity Island.