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Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Friday, April 11, 2003


Sometimes, wrong
name is right choice


I sometimes write about marine animal names, because the subject is both confusing and amusing. Others think so, too. A reader writes: "Great column explaining what butterfish really are. However, you state that butterfish often swim among swarms of jellyfish. Isn't jellyfish, like butterfish, a misnomer? Aren't they really sea jellies? At least that's what the Waikiki Aquarium is teaching people."

Yes, it's a misnomer, and yes, sea jellies is the more correct term. I use the word jellyfish anyway.

To me the purpose of naming something is to communicate. Almost every time I use the term sea jellies, the person replies, "Do you mean jellyfish?"

Since that is what I mean, I've decided to say it.

A similar name change is going on with starfish. The PC term is currently sea star. "You mean starfish?" people say. So, starfish it is.

The argument for changing these common names is that these animals aren't fish, and therefore, we shouldn't call them that. But I can't imagine anyone (on this planet) thinking jellyfish and starfish are really fish.

Another reason I stick to the centuries-old terms is because I think science jargon puts people off enough without confusing them with names that even researchers don't always agree on.

Besides that, this "correct" naming of marine animals is inconsistent.

For instance, the animals known throughout the world as fur seals are really sea lions. This name mix-up matters because sea lions and seals look different. Sea lions have external ears and walk on their flippers; seals don't.

On a missed-name topic, I recently wrote that I finally learned the meaning of tang, another name for some surgeonfish: It's German for seaweed, which most surgeonfish eat.

About that column a friendly reader e-mailed: "I'm sure you'll hear this from other people, but tang also means sharp point or barb." He included a reference to an online dictionary.

Sure enough, my dictionary defines tang as "the sharp part of one end of a chisel, knife blade, or other similar tool that secures it to the handle or shaft." That certainly fits the description of surgeonfish "scalpels." (Thanks, Chris.)

The Hawaiian language presents another set of names to deal with. An Australian reader writes: "I once saw a T-shirt bearing Hawaiian fish names, but couldn't wrest it away from its owner. I am looking for the Hawaiian names for our golden trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus) and giant leatherback (Scomberoides lysan)."

These I know: The golden trevally is called ulua paopao; the leatherback is lai.

Hawaii residents also have to cope with Japanese names. A Kauai reader wrote to ask which fish is called koshibi.

A friend of Japanese decent told me that in Japanese "shibi" means yellowfin tuna (ahi) and "ko" means child. So, it's either a juvenile ahi or a childish tuna.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course ... If only marine animal names were as simple.



Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.

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