Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, May 4, 2001

Science and Hawaii
keep fish names
slippery affair

While visiting the Ala Wai Boat Harbor last weekend, I passed an acquaintance who shares my interest in fish.

"I saw that fish again," she said when we met up. "The one with fins that look like wings."

"The flying gurnard?"

"Yes, that's it. Except the local guys there called it a batfish. Have you heard that before?"

I had not. To me a batfish is completely different from a gurnard and isn't found in Hawaii. But the fact that the men used the name didn't surprise, because the subject of fish names is a complicated one.

First, there are the scientific names to grapple with. Every known plant and animal in the world gets assigned two names, usually in Latin or Greek.

These scientific names sometimes describe the species and sometimes don't.

But in either case, the words are hard to remember and difficult to pronounce.

Take the Forcipiger flavissimus. The first word means forceps in Latin; the second means yellow. Yellow forceps.

Doesn't ring a bell? Then try its Hawaiian name: lauwiliwilinukunukuoi'oi, which means "sharp beak like the leaf of the wiliwili tree."

Yes, this little fish with all the big names is the longnose butterflyfish.

But wait. Longnose butterflyfish isn't the fish's official common name, even thought most people call it that. The fish's official common name is forcepsfish.

Besides assigning scientific names to fish, biologists also assign them common names. This has come about because sometimes a fish has half a dozen or more popular names, depending upon the country and region. And so, to enable people to understand one another when referring to a species, biologists pick an English name and declare it the fish's official common name.

The problem with this system is that sometimes scientists choose common names that aren't commonly used. Another example besides the forcepsfish/longnose butterflyfish is the helmet gurnard. When you call a fish by that name, everyone wonders if it's any relation to the flying gurnard. But it is the flying gurnard.

Scientific names aren't much better. Because two or more scientists working in different parts of the world often discovered the same species, some fish have a dozen or more published scientific names. Also, as researchers study fish, they change the scientific names to reflect newly discovered relationships.

IN HAWAII WE HAVE an additional complication to this name game: the Hawaiian language. Ancient Hawaiians often gave fish detailed names reflecting a certain trait. Most Hawaii residents know humuhumunukunukuapua'a means "fish that grunts like a pig," and it does indeed, when cornered or hooked.

One of my favorite names refers to my old friend the flying gurnard. Its Hawaiian name is loloa'u, meaning "crazy (lolo) billfish (a'u)." I don't know how that name came about, but I like the image.

Today, several Hawaiian fish names are used throughout the world. Some restaurants prefer the word mahimahi to dolphinfish to avoid the impression they are serving dolphin meat. And I have often seen ahi and opakapaka on mainland menus.

Here in Hawaii we use the Hawaiian names for fish so often, we don't always recognize their English names. Moi is one of these, along with aholehole, akule, aku and others.

When I was a student at UH, I thought my ichthyology professor was crazy to make us learn not only the scientific and common names of local fish but also their popular and Hawaiian names. But it wasn't crazy. It was preparation for the real world.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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