Thursday, May 14, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Fish, Part I

Well, Alex asked, and honestly, I was probably going to look at these sooner rather than later. Might as well do it now. I’m going to stick with the most common names because there are a lot of them.

The word that started this mess comes from the Old English fisc, fish, and in spite of the C there, it’s actually pronounced the same. The verb fish actually has a slightly different origin word, as its Old English form is fiscian. I guess they liked making things confusing so they dropped the last syllable. Both words come from the Proto Germanic fiskaz, which might be from the Proto Indo European pisk-, fish, which is definitely the origin for Pisces. But I love how they’re not actually sure it’s where fish comes from.

Unfortunately, there’s not much known about this word. It showed up in the late seventeenth century from the Portuguese garupa, but where they got it is unknown (it’s possibly South American in origin). However one thing is for certain: it’s not related to group. At all.

Flounder showed up in the fourteenth century meaning the fish—the other definition, to flounder, showed up in the sixteenth century, and while it may be from the fish, it’s not definitely known, and obviously the fish came first. The fish comes from the Anglo French floundre, from the Old North French flondre, Old Norse flydhra, and Proto Germanic flunthrjo. That’s from the Proto Indo European plat-, the origin word for flat. A flounder is a flat fish!

Tuna is a fairly recent word, having shown up in 1881 from the American Spanish (specifically California) tuna. That’s from the Spanish atun, tuna, which is actually taken from the Arabic tun, which is then from the classical Latin thunnus, which also means tuna. That word certainly went a long route to English. If you’re wondering what we called tuna before… it was tunny. Yeah. That word showed up in the sixteenth century, thought to be from the Middle French thon and Old Provençal ton, which is also from thunnus.

Salmon showed up in the early thirteenth century from the Anglo French samoun, Old French salmun, and classical Latin salmonem, salmon. Which, for the record, pronounced the L. Some people think that’s from the verb salire, to jump, and other people think the word is Celtic in origin. Salmon also replaced the previous Old English word for the fish, laex, which is the origin for lox, which is also still used sometimes when referring to it.

I have to say, these were weirder than I expected. I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Thanks!
    Wonder why they stopped pronouncing the L in salmon?

  2. Something fishy about some of those... Sorry. Couldn't resist.

  3. So flounder about doesn't mean flop like one?

  4. I'm gonna guess that tuna is so new because it's a Pacific fish.

  5. I had wondered why they call it lox.

  6. I'm surprised tuna is that recent.

  7. Interesting that grouper has nothing to do with group!


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