As a linguist and keen scuba-diver, when I first heard of a book about the etymology of fish names I could only but be interested! Given that one of the co-authors is Henriette Walter, whose book Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is a favourite of mine, I was even more eager to read a copy of La Fabuleuse Histoire Du Nom Des Poissons. The book is written in French and mainly discusses French names, but the name of each fish is also given in English, German, Spanish and Italian along with an explanation of the etymology in each of these languages, which makes it even more interesting for a linguist. Here are some of the most intriguing facts I learnt:
- Did you know the Baie Des Anges at Nice, in the South of France, takes it name from the angelshark? These sharks, known as ange de mer in French, once used to be common in the bay.
- Rollmops are pickled herring fillets whose name comes from the German rollen (to roll) and mops (a pug). Apparently the rolled herring fillets look like the wrinkled dog’s head …
- The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, as does the word sardonic. Whereas the current meaning of ‘sardonic’ is an expression of derisive, cynical or sceptical humour, it originally meant a rictus caused by ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia.
- The name Grouper (sometimes called ‘groper’ in Australia) doesn’t come from any gregarious tendencies of this fish to group, but from the Portuguese garoupa, which itself probably comes from an Amerindian word.
- Wrasses take their name from the Cornish word wrach which means ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’, and originally ‘witch’. Most wrasses are beautifully patterned, however some species have spotty colouring rather like old, wrinkled skin, which might explain this etymology. One enormous species of wrasse I’ve been lucky enough to see while diving is the Napoleon (also known as Humphead wrasse) which doesn’t take its name from the French Emperor but from a New Caledonian farmer called Louis Napoléon who collected these fish as trophies.
- Damselfish are so-called due their bright colours and eye-catching movements, and Surgeonfish have dangerously sharp scalpel-like spines on either side of the tail.
- The Moorish idol is common, but is also one of the most unusually named fish I’ve come across when diving. I learnt that the etymology comes from African Moors, who believed the fish to be a bringer of happiness or luck. Moluccan fishermen were also superstitious about it, and if they caught one would throw it back into the water after bowing and showing signs of respect.
- I was fascinated to learn that Tilapia were known to the Ancient Egyptians (there’s even a tilapia hieroglyph). Their name comes from the Latinisation of the Tswana (Bantu) word for fish, thiape.
- Here in Reunion swordfish are commonly fished and eaten, and predictably their name comes from their long, flat, sword-shaped bill. While in its original English version Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea centres on the fisherman’s struggle with a giant marlin, the novel’s first French translator, Jean Dutourd, chose to translate ‘marlin’ as ‘swordfish’ (espadon in French), considering that the former was not well enough known in France at the time (1952).
- Another common fish in the waters around Reunion, the marlin‘s name comes from ‘marlinspike‘, which is a sailor’s tool used in marine rope work. Marlins have a a spear-like bill, and marlinspikes have a polished metal cone tapered to a point, hence the connection. ‘Marlinspike’ itself derives from from the practice of ‘marling’, that is winding small diameter twine called ‘marline’ around larger ropes to form protective whippings.
- Did you think Lemon sole got its name from the citrus fruit? ‘Lemon’ is in fact a deformation of the French word limande (the same fish is called Limande in French) which itself comes from lime, meaning “[abrasive] file” referring to a former use of the fish’s skin.
- I was once lucky enough to see a Mola Mola, the heaviest bony fish in the world, while diving in Bali. ‘Mola’ is latin for millstone, which the fish resembles because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. It is also called ‘sunfish’ in English due to it’s habit of ‘sunbathing’ at the surface of the water. However most other European languages call it ‘moonfish’ in reference to its pale colour and rounded shape.
- I’ve long been fascinated by coelacanths, rare fish occasionally found deep in the Mozambique Channel and Indonesia. Thought to be extinct until 1938, their name comes from the Greek words koilos ‘hollow’ and akantha ‘spine’ referring to the hollow caudal fin rays of the first fossil specimen described.
- Not in the above-mentioned book but a beautiful etymology I learnt while diving in Madagascar last year is that of the whale shark (a filter-feeding shark, and the world’s largest fish species). In Malagasy it is called marokintana (‘many stars’) due to their spotted skin, which is unique to each individual.
Overall, the authors point out that composed fish names, e.g. goldfish, flying fish, clownfish, triggerfish etc., are much more common in the fish kingdom than in the mammal or bird world (they should know – the same authors also wrote similar books about bird and mammal names!).
With this post I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, but to finish I couldn’t resist listing some of the many English idioms we seem to have about fish:
- a big fish in a small pond
- a fine kettle of fish
- like a fish out of water
- fish for compliments
- have bigger fish to fry
- there are plenty more fish in the sea
- shooting fish in a barrel
- to be a cold fish
- drink like a fish
- something smells fishy
- a queer fish
- to be neither fish nor fowl
- La fabuleuse histoire du nom des poissons – du tout petit poisson-clown au très grand requin blanc by Henriette Walter and Pierre Avenas, published by Robert Laffont, 2011, ISBN 978-2-221-11356-1
- Coelacanth – the ‘fossil fish’ – a short blog post about this fascinating fish on my travel blog.
- Fish Caught In Time – the Search for The Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg, published by Perennial, 2000, ISBN 978-0-06-093285-5
- Swim with the giant sunfish – a TED Talk about mola mola by marine biologist Tierney Thys
- Our swim with a whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013 (1’55” video)