Thursday, May 21, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Fish, Part II

There are a lot of fish out there. I’m not even getting to all of them, just the ones I’ve heard of.

Shark showed up in the mid sixteenth century, but the first thing it says after that is it’s of “uncertain origin”. Apparently the word came about when a sixteenth century ship captain brought a shark back to London—go check out the link to the Etymology page and you’ll see an excerpt from a handbill where it’s referred to as a “sharke” in Olde English Speake. While shark as someone who preys on others is first noted at the very end of the sixteenth century, one theory is that it actually appeared first and then the fish was named so, while another theory is that it was taken from a Mayan word, xoc, which may have been their word for it. Now, sharks did have a name in English before then, but it was tiburon, from the Spanish word for shark, tiburón. And these days it’s also a town in California.

Trout comes from the Old English truht, which of course just means trout. It’s thought to be from the Old French truite and Late Latin tructa, which is then thought to be from the Greek word troktes, a word for a kind of fish. It’s actually from the word trogein, to gnaw or eat, and that can be traced to the Proto Indo European tro-, from tere-, to rub or turn. A word we’ve gone over before. Extensively.

I was going to look at angler here, but then I found out it’s just angle with an R at the end. How boring. So, pike. This one isn’t terribly strange either, but it’s still amusing. It showed up in the earlyfourteenth century, and it’s named for the polearm people use as weapons. See, the fish has a long, pointed jaw. It’s also influenced by the French word for pike, brochet. Yeah, nothing too crazy here.

Cod is fairly old, having shown up in the mid fourteenth century (it actually appeared as part of a last name a century before that), and is another one from an unknown origin. This one is kind of weird because there is another cod, and that’s part of cod piece, but there’s no known link between the words. That word is from the Old English codd, which meant bag or pouch (and yes, it referred to a certain part of the male anatomy), and while there have been weird etymology links before, that doesn’t seem to be where the fish came from.

Speaking of words that have more than one meaning and aren’t related at all, we have bass. The word for the fish showed up in the fifteenth century as a corruption of the Middle English baers. That’s from the Old English baers, a fish, from the Proto Germanic bars-, sharp and Proto Indo European bhar-, point or bristle. Apparently the fish’s dorsal fins look like bristles. And of course the musical bass is not related. That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Ahem. So to speak.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Seems a lot of fish names just came from the word for fish in one language or another.
    See, aren't you glad you decided to do fish? Next you can do birds, reptiles, mammals, insects...

  2. You have to gnaw that trout carefully. It's a very bony fish.

  3. I'm disappointed that cod and cod piece aren't related. I've always pictured dudes in armor with fish strapped to their crotches...

  4. It is strange how critters get their names.

  5. What came to mind when I saw the word 'bass' was the musical one. Didn't know of this. Very unrelated.


Please validate me.