STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Origin and Historical Background of Fish Names The origins of the derivation of fish species names is sometimes obvious, but other times their roots are a little more complex The gar fish gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon word for spear, because of their spear-shaped head. (Keith Sutton photo) It’s easy to recognize the origins of some fish names. Take swordfish, for example. Swordfish have a long nose like a sword, so it’s only natural they should have been thus named. Cutthroat trout have twin slashes of red color on the underside of the lower jaw from which their name is derived. Flying fish are so named because their “wings” allow them to glide over the surface of the ocean. The freshwater drum gets its name from the unusual booming sounds males make during the spring spawning season. Not all fish names are so easy to figure out, however. For example, the name of one of our most popular Pacific sportfish, the halibut, literally means “holy flatfish,” because, in times past, the fish was eaten only on holy days – fast days – when it was forbidden to eat meat. “Hali” is the Middle English spelling of holy, and “butte” is an old word for a flounder. Here are the etymologies of some other fish names you probably wouldn’t just figure out on your own, including some whose origins might surprise you. Dolly Varden Did you ever wonder where the beautiful Dolly Varden trout got its name? It comes from a fictional character, Miss Dolly Varden, in the Charles Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge. How this name became attached to the fish is recounted by Peter Moyle in his book Inland Fishes of California. He says the name was first used by anglers who caught these trout in the McCloud River in northern California in the early 1870s. A letter sent to him on March 24, 1974, from Valerie Masson Gomez, explains why. “My grandmother's family operated a summer resort at Upper Soda Springs on the Sacramento River just north of the present town of Dunsmuir, California,” Gomez wrote. “She lived there all her life and related to us in her later years her story about the naming of the Dolly Varden trout. She said that some fishermen were standing on the lawn at Upper Soda Springs looking at a catch of the large trout from the McCloud River that were called ‘calico trout’ because of their spotted, colorful markings. They were saying that the trout should have a better name. “My grandmother, then a young girl of 15 or 16, had been reading Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge in which there appears a character named Dolly Varden; also the vogue in fashion for women at that time (middle 1870s) was called Dolly Varden, a dress of sheer figured muslin worn over a bright-colored petticoat. My grandmother had just gotten a new dress in that style and the red-spotted trout reminded her of her printed dress. “She suggested to the men looking down at the trout, ‘Why not call them Dolly Varden?’ They thought it a very appropriate name, and the guests that summer returned to their homes (many in the San Francisco Bay area) calling the trout by this new name.” Gar You might not know it but the names “gar” and “garlic” both have common origins. The long toothy fish we call gar get their name from the Anglo-Saxon word for spear, because they have a spear-shaped head. Garlic also took its name from its spear shape – the shape of the leaves in this case. Its original name, “garleac,” meant “spear leek.” Marlin Before its name was shortened, the powerful marlin was called the “marlinspike fish.” A marlinspike was a pointed iron tool sailors used when working on ropes and knots, and because the marlin’s bill was shaped like the tool, the fish was given that name. (Swordfish already was taken.) Burbot The burbot, a freshwater fish with a single, short chin barbel, or whisker, derives its name from the French word “bourbette,” which means beard. Another common name, “eelpout,” combines the names of two other fishes – the eel and the pout – which the unusual burbot superficially resembles. You might also hear folks calling burbots “lawyers.” According to a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who shall remain unnamed, “this is because they are slimy, big-mouthed bottom feeders.” Pike Because it has a long, pointed snout and long cylindrical body, the voracious pike derives its name from the old French word “pique,” which describes a weapon with a long shaft and a pointed metal head. Sole References to the sole, another type of flatfish, can be traced back at least as far as the mid-13th century. The name probably is derived from “solum,” an ancient word meaning bottom, ground or lowest point of a thing, as in “sole of the foot,” because soles spend much of their time hiding on bottom beneath a covering of sand. The Latin word “solea,” which means “sandal,” could also be the origin of the name because of the fish’s resemblance to a flat shoe. Bonito The bonito, a small member of the tuna family, derives its name from the Spanish word for beautiful or pretty. Anyone who has ever held in their hands a freshly caught bonito and gazed upon the sleek fish’s metallic blue and silver coloration would be likely to agree this is an appropriate moniker. Lamprey Lampreys resemble weird aliens instead of a fish. Their sucker-like mouths have circular rows of sharp teeth these parasites use to get at the blood of other fish. The strange mouth also helps the lamprey cling to rocks and other surfaces when resting, a habit that inspired the fish’s name. “Lamprey” comes from the Latin words lambere (to lick) and petra (rock). John Dory The origin of this fish name is slippery. It sounds like it was surely named after a person, but, according to the 1938 French culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, the English name is a corruption of this delicious fish’s French nickname, “Jean-doré.” This was in dispute even a century ago, however, by some who contend it comes from the Spanish “janitore,” or door-keeper, an allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish said to be of that species to Jesus at his command. In some places, St. Peter’s fish is the name most commonly used. Sheepshead Look a sheep in the eye – the kind of sheep that produces wool – and you will notice it is rather buck-toothed. The saltwater sheepshead, a fish popular with coastal anglers, has teeth that protrude as well, which accounts for its unusual name. Freshwater drums are called sheepsheads, too, for the same reason. Sheepsheads from saltwater environs also are called “convict fish.” Know why? Their light-colored body has rows of black bars just like the stripes on a prison convict’s uniform. Piranha When you think of a piranha, what comes to mind first? All those razor-sharp teeth, right? From those chompers, the piranha got it common name. In the native language of the Tupi Indians in South America, “pira” means fish and “ranha” means tooth. Steelhead Steelheads are ocean-going versions of rainbow trout. Some attribute the origin of the name to the fish’s smooth, metallic-colored head, but I like better an explanation given by Bill McMillan in an article for Steelheader’s Journal. He says these commercially important fish were bludgeoned with billy clubs when caught, just like the larger chinook salmon. But while chinooks only required a single whack to kill due to their relatively soft head structure, it often took three or four whacks to kill the smaller trout. Thus the latter were called “hardheads” or “steelheads.” Crappie (Keith Sutton photo) The word crappie has its roots in the Canadian-French word “crapet,” which was an early name for the species. Crapet probably is derived from the French “crêpe,” a pancake, in reference to the fish’s general shape. Grouper The word “grouper” is from the Portuguese name, “garoupa.” The origin of this name in Portuguese is believed to be from an indigenous South American language. Warmouth (Keith Sutton photo) Some think the name “warmouth” is probably derived from the “Indian warpaint” pattern of facial bars radiating backward from its reddish eyes to the margin of the gill covers. In some areas, it is still improperly called by an old name, warmouth bass. In other places, it goes by nicknames like mud bass, weed bass, stumpknocker, bigmouth perch, jugmouth and goggle-eye. Mackerel The word “mackerel” is believed to come from the old French word “maquerel,” which means pimp or procurer. The connection is obscure, but medieval people had imaginative notions of the sex lives of animals. In summer, mackerel approach the shore in schools to spawn.