Friday, November 03, 2006

Fish on Friday

[posted by Callimachus]

"Fish" words are some of the oddest in English.

Despite conquering a sea-girt island and living on it for centuries, despite having briny "Beowulf" as their epic and fish-and-chips as their national culinary cliché, the Anglo-Saxons never were very good at boats and sails and they never liked the sea. You get the feeling they were downright terrified of it.

When the Vikings started gnawing on England, the English had to send to Frisia to find men to build and man a defensive navy. Later, when the English tried to get into the sea-trading and whaling business, they turned to Dutch and Basque sailors to man their ships.

Maybe that's why so many "fish" words in English are an odd lot.

Smelt, for instance. It's been the same word, unchanged, since Old English, and the word also exists in Dutch and Danish. But no one has any idea why the fish are called that. The Oxford English Dictionary goes so far as to note that the fish has a peculiar odor, but it doesn't suggest a connection with smell. Etymologist Ernest Klein suggests a connection with the way the fish melts in one's mouth. These are sheer guesses. The word is a mystery.

Or take the mundane mackerel. It turns up in English around 1300, clearly from Old French maquerel (Modern French maquereau), which apparently is identical with the Old French word maquerel that means "pimp, procurer." [This comes from some Germanic source; Middle Dutch has makelaer "broker," from Old Frisian mek "marriage," from maken "to make."]

Now how the hell did people decide the mackerel was a pimp? The connection is utterly obscure today, but medieval people had imaginative notions of the sex lives of animals. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the fish approach the shore in shoals in summertime to spawn. Or perhaps there's some other explanation we can't even begin to guess. Or perhaps they're not the same word after all.

Mackerel isn't the only obscurity on the sushi bar menu. Salmon comes from Latin salmonem and likely originally meant "leaper" (cf. salire "to leap"), but that might be a folk-etymology of a word borrowed from Celtic.

But it is not the native Indo-European name for the salmon, which is preserved in Lithuanian laszisza, Russian losos, Polish losos, Old English læx, and (via German) Yiddish laks, which reappeared in American English as lox in the 1940s. Why the Romans changed their name for the fish, and passed it on to us, we can only guess.

Other fish name meanings of different types of fish are transparent. Tang (1734) are so called for their spines. The angel-fish (1668) is so called for its "wings." The alewife (1633), a herring-like fish of North America, was named for the old word for female tavern keepers, and so called in reference to its big belly. The sunfish (1629) seems to have been named either with reference to its roundness or its brilliant appearance.

The same is true with some of the older fish names. The sole is from Latin solea, the name for a kind of flatfish but originally "sandal," and so called from resemblance of the fish to a sandal. Mola is Latin for "millstone." The fish were so called because of their shape and rough skin.

The marlin was named for the nautical marlinspike, a pointed iron tool used by sailors to separate strands of rope (from a Middle Dutch verb maren "to tie, moor"). The fish was so called from the shape of its elongated upper jaw.

A number of North American fishes get their names from native words for them, such as the tautog (a Narragansett plural mistaken as a singular), and the tarpon (no longer PC to call it by the old common name, jew-fish.

A surprisingly large number of fish names have entirely baffled etymologists; they have had to throw up their hands and admit they have no idea where these words came from, who first gave them to the fish, and for what reason. Among these are the nurse shark, the wahoo the skate (a Viking word), the pilchard, the roach and the loach (both of which go back to medieval French, but there the trail goes cold), and the pollack.

Chub as the name for a type of river fish (applied to different species in Europe and in America) dades from c.1450, but nobody knows what it means. Chubby meaning "short and thick" is from the fish name.

The ray is from Latin, the goby and the gudgeon are from Greek, but the origin of these words cannot now be guessed.

Carp ultimately may be from a Gothic word that passed into common Latin in the 6th century; it is a fish of the Danube originally (introduced in English ponds in the 14th century), which would explain the proposed East Germanic name origin. If so, it is one of the few Gothic words in English.

The cray- in crayfish seems to come from another extince Germanic language, Frankish, and probably is related to crab. Another Frankish word probably survives in bream, which seems to come from a Proto-Germanic base that meant "to shine, glitter, sparkle." Both words came to English by way of French.

The edible fish called the dory also comes from French. It originally was the feminine past participle of dorer "to gild," and was so called in reference to its colorings.

The edible mullet goes back to Latin mulettus, which in turn goes back to Greek myllos, the name of a marine fish but perhaps not the same as the modern mullet, which tends to be red, since it seems to be related to melos "black." It's debatable whether the fish name has any connection to the mocking name for the hairstyle.

Realtively few of the native Anglo-Saxon fish-names are still in use. Among them is hake (probably from Old English haca "a hook"), gar (from a once common Old English gar "spear"), and along the same lines pike, a special use of pike the military weapon, in reference to the fish's long, pointed jaw. Bass is a 15th century corruption of Old English bærs "a fish, perch," from a Proto-Germanic base meaning "sharp" (and ultimately related to bristle). The fish was so called for its dorsal fins.

Pickerel is simply a Middle English diminutive of pike.

Old English also had cypera "male salmon," which has survived as kipper. The word may be related to copper on resemblance of color, but another theory connects it to kip, a name for the sharp, hooked lower jaw of the male salmon in breeding season, from Middle English kippen "to snatch, tug, pull." The modern word usually refers to kippered herring, from a verb meaning "to cure a fish by cleaning, salting, and spicing it" (1326). The theory is that this was originally done to salmon, hence the name.

Minnow probably is related to Old English myne, a name for some kind of fish. It is found in other Germanic languages (Dutch meun, German Münne), but again the ultimate meaning and origin are unknown.

The guppy, on the other hand, is a modern name, coined in 1925 in honor of R.J.L. Guppy, the Trinidad clergyman who supplied the first specimen (1866) to the British Museum. The family name is from a place in Dorset.

Among the Latin-derived fish names is grampus, from Old French graspeis, from Medieval Latin craspicis, literally "fat fish," from Latin crassus "thick" and piscis "fish."

The remora, the "sucker fish," is from a Latin remora, that literally means "delay, hindrance" (from re- "back" and mora "delay"). The fist were so called because they were believed by the ancients to retard a vessel to which they attached themselves. Pliny writes that Antony's galley was delayed by one at the Battle of Actium. One of the older English names for it was stayship or stopship.

The ancient Greeks, whose culinary arts were singularly miserable, considered tuna to be one of life's greatest delicacies. Their word for it was thynnos which possibly means "darter" (cf. thynein "dart along"). This passed into English in two forms: from LAtin thunnus to Arabic al-tun to Spanish atun to American-Spanish tuna to American English tuna (1881). The older form of the word in English is tunny (1530), which probably comes from the Latin word via Provençal and French.

The spiny, fresh-water perch has a Greek name as well, perke, apparently from the Proto-Indo-European base *perk- "speckled, spotted."

Trout seems to be Greek, too, if Late Latin tructa is derived from Greek troktes, the name of a kind of sea fish, as some suspect. The Greek word literally means "nibbler," and it comes from the verb trogein "to gnaw." One of the delights of late 17th century slang was trusty trout, used in a sense of "confidential friend."

The Spanish and Portuguese, who were the first European explorers of the Caribbean and Pacific waters, bequeathed many fish names. The pompano, for instance, which originally is a Spanish word meaning "vine, tendril." The grunion is American Spanish gruñon "grunting fish."

Albacore as the name of a large variety of tuna comes from Portuguese albacora, which in turn comes from Arabic al bakara, the plural of al buko "young camel, heifer." The fish was so called for its size. Anchovy is another Portuguese contribution to the fish menu. The word comes from a Genoese or Corsican dialect, and ultimately represents either Latin apua "small fish" or Basque anchuva "dry" (on the notion of "fish for drying").

Another Mediterranean contribution is the sardine, from Greek sardinos, often said to be from Sardo "Sardinia," the Mediterranean island, near which the fish were probably caught and from which they were exported. But etymologist Ernest Klein writes, "It is hardly probable that the Greeks would have obtained fish from so far as Sardinia at a time relatively so early as that of Aristotle, from whom Athenaios quotes a passage in which the fish sardinos is mentioned."

The large flatfish called a turbot also has an obscure name. It probably comes from a Scandinavian language (Old Swedish has törnbut), but etymologists cannot decide if this represents a Germanic "thorn-fish" or a word that has some connection to Latin turbo "spinning top."

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