THE STAINED-GLASS LANGUAGE OF SALMON.

From Richard Hamblyn’s LRB review of To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon, by Richard Shelton:

‘Smolt’, ‘grilse’: as Richard Shelton observes, salmon are spoken of in a ‘stained-glass language’ of their own, their life stages marked by an ichthyological lexicon unchanged since Chaucer’s time. Born in a ‘redd’, a shallow, gravel-covered depression dug by the female in the days before spawning, newly hatched salmon begin life as ‘alevins’, tiny, buoyant creatures with their yolk sacs still attached. Once the yolk has been absorbed, the fast-growing fish, now known as ‘fry’, are able to feed for themselves, turning instinctively to face the current in order to graze on drifting insect larvae. Some months later, the juvenile salmon, now known as ‘parr’, move downstream to deeper water, where their markings grow darker and their shapes more distinctively salmonoid. By the following spring, most parr have begun the first of the transformations that will enable them to cross the hydrological boundary from the river to the sea: once their kidneys have been primed to reverse their usual function of taking in salts and excreting dilute river water, their skin colour brightens to reflective silver through a microscopic coating of guanine crystals, and their body shapes fill out in anticipation of the long voyage ahead. It is then that the ‘smolts’, as the fish are now known, are ready to head downriver to the sea.[…]
As soon as it smells fresh water again, an adult salmon will stop feeding, devoting itself solely to the rigours of the voyage, its body beginning its final transformation, as its immune system shuts down to conserve energy, its skin starts to lose its silvery sheen, and (in the case of the male) a rush of hormones prompts the lower jaw to change shape, curving into an aggressive-looking underbite known as a ‘kype’, a jutting scimitar used for fending off other males in the spawning grounds upstream. […]
Shelton coolly describes the lingering death of a spawned-out male, now known as a ‘kelt’ – the last of its names […]

I wonder if any other creature has quite so many names for its various stages, and if any other languages have a similar collection of salmon words. (Thanks, Kattullus!)

Comments

  1. “I wonder if any other creature has quite so many names for its various stages, and if any other languages have a similar collection of salmon words.”
    Is that your tonguen in your cehhek, or are you just glad to see me? This is right out of Wikipedia, for a start.
    Southern Lushootseed salmonid vocabulary
    ačədádxʷ
    a word that covers all Pacific salmon and some species of trout.
    sác̓əb
    Chinook or King
    x̌ʔəwádxʷ
    sockeye salmon
    sq̓ə́čqs
    coho salmon
    ƛ̕xʷáy
    chum salmon
    hədúʔ
    the pink salmon
    qíw̓x̌
    steelhead
    pədkʷəxʷic
    coho season
    sc̓áyʼt
    gills
    ɬičáʔa
    nets
    ɬičaʔalikʷ
    net fishing
    ʔálil tiʔíɬ ƛ̕usq̓íl
    spawning season
    skʷəlúb
    body fat
    sč̕ət̓šáds
    tailfin
    t̓áltəd
    fillet knife
    sq̓wəlús
    fish dried for storage
    səlúsqid
    fish heads
    qəlx̌
    dried salmon eggs
    ƛ̕ə́bƛ̕əbqʷ
    fresh eggs
    sɬúʔb
    dried chum
    sxʷúdzəʔdaliɬəd
    fish with a large amount of body fat
    xʷšábús
    lightly smoked
    [edit] Northern Lushootseed salmonid vocabulary
    sʔuladxʷ
    a word that covers all Pacific salmon and some species of trout.
    yubəč
    Chinook or King
    scəqiʔ
    sockeye salmon
    ƛ̕xʷayʔ
    chum salmon
    skʷəxʷic
    silver salmon
    Waht do you bet it gets a lot more complex than this?
    As for other species, English has a similar list for domestic animals. Do you know what a shoat is? A hogget? My favorite is the Irish word ‘mhnseog” – a nanny goat in the second year of gving milk. Next year I guess she gets called soemthing else.

  2. komfo,amonan says:

    [Insert ‘Lushootseed have 100 words for salmon’ joke here.]
    Is ‘mhnseog’ really a word? I’m no Irishist, but that doesn’t look pronounceable even by Irish standards. I found ‘minnseog’ in An Irish-English Dictionary.

  3. Is that your tonguen in your cehhek, or are you just glad to see me?
    I’m glad to see you! I’ve gotten lazy about looking things up, because I figure some of my readers will know off the top of their heads.

  4. French Wiki has
    frayére = redd
    alevin = alevin
    tacon = fry?
    maybe pré-smolt = parr?
    smolt = smolt
    There is also saumonneau.
    No word on the fearsome kype, or the over-the hill kelt, though.

  5. smoltification is parr-smolt transformation.

  6. tuckmeister says:
  7. readers will know off the top of their heads
    Who do you supposed writes all those wikipedia articles, if not Hat’s readers.

  8. One Salmon word that is missing, ‘baggot’, a female fish who returned to the river but failed to spawn.

  9. mhnseog
    Minseog, I would say. Obviously a diminutive of minseach, nanny-goat.

  10. Come to think of it, Ulster Irish with its predilection for the -óg/-eog suffix might use minseog as a generic term for any old nanny-goat.

  11. The Japanese word for a fish which has different names for each stage of its life is 出生魚 shussei-uo. You can read about it at Japanese Wikipedia, where there is a list of shussei-uo.
    For example, the Japanese Amberjack or ブリ is known as ワカシ wakashi (up to 15 cm), イナダ inada up to 40 cm (good eating in the summer), ワラサ warasa up to 60 cm, and then ブリ buri above 90 cm (not such good eating in the summer). There are also different names depending on the dialect (names are given for Kantō, Kansai, Tōhoku, Shimokita peninsula, Hokuriku, Toyama pref., San’in region, Shikoku, and Kyūshū). Similarly for the Suzuki, Flathead Mullet, and Japanese Pilchard. The Tuna has changes of name but is apparently not called a shussei-uo.

  12. Since someone has mentioned farm animals, I should point out that Mongolian is rich in names for livestock, with separate names for horses and possibly other livestock in their first year, second year, etc. (Of course, English also has names like ‘yearling’ etc.)

  13. My final comment would have to be: Why does English have such a multitude of names for the poor salmon, including a special name for the place where it is born. It bodes ill for the poor salmon that mankind (‘humanity’ is too nice a word for it) takes such a minute interest in every aspect of its life cycle, and has done since Chaucer’s time. Mankind only takes an interest things that it can derive an economic benefit from.

  14. j. del col says:

    A curious instance of a poverty of terms occurs in relation to spiders. If a recent book on arachnids is correct, nobody can decide what to call all the various stages some spiders go through on the way to adulthood, other than 1st instar, 2nd instar…etc.

  15. The Japanese word for a fish which has different names for each stage of its life is 出生魚 shussei-uo. … The Tuna has changes of name but is apparently not called a shussei-uo.
    Splendeur et misères des langues.

  16. A minor point, perhaps, but yearling, at least with racehorses, assumes that all horses are born on the first of January; if one had been born on New Year’s Eve, two yearlings might be almost a year apart in their actual ages. Perhaps the Mongolian word is more related to the horses’ development. Horses started off in Mongolia; god knows why so many ended up in Iceland.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Iceland proportionately has more waste than other European countries.
    In one of Evans-Pritchard’s books there’s something about Nuer words for cattle. The system includes the normal age / gender / gender status distinctions, but there’s also a lot about color, markings, and IIRC strength and health. A number of English horse-words are mostly about physical appearance too — brindle, palomino, bay, etc.
    Among the Nuer and in ancient China these terms had ritual purposes (appropriateness for sacrifice) and could be omens. I believe that this is so in the Bible too.
    I was told by friends in my youth that each species of farm animal has a different word for its diarrhea, but I now think that they were pulling my leg. “Scours” seems to be the general veterinary term.
    But there are a lot of different words for fixed animals: steer, ox, wether, capon, barrow, stag, gelding, and probably others. [More from Wiki: Bullock (cattle), Gib (cat, ferret), Havier (deer), Hokie (turkey), Lapin (rabbit)].

  18. John Emerson says:

    In the sense of “waste land” = grazing land.

  19. yearling, at least with racehorses, assumes that all horses are born on the first of January
    This, of course, is the traditional way of counting ages in the Orient. You get one year older on (Chinese) New Year’s Day. This results in people generally being one year older than they are under the Western system of ages.

  20. Goodness, I didn’t know that.
    Yes, there’s a lot of grazing land with herds of wild Icelandic horses

  21. (Apparently–I’ve only seen pictures.)

  22. Bathrobe,
    Fear not for the noble salmon. The threat is more from habitat destruction than anything else – thoughtless rather than hungry humans. Salmon get this much attention because they are mythic, like ravens or bears.
    Sorry for my fat fingers, Komfo. But scribal error is an entrenched tradition in Ireland anyway. I did mean minseog.
    “One Salmon word that is missing, ‘baggot’, a female fish who returned to the river but failed to spawn. ”
    And I can hear them all now, sitting in a glum circle nursing their white wines, “Where are all the good kypes? They’re either gay or married….”
    “In one of Evans-Pritchard’s books there’s something about Nuer words for cattle.’
    I remember that. He finally had to break down and draw them all out on a chart; the verbal descriptions got too intricate.

  23. John Emerson says:

    Actually, Atlantic salmon have been overfished too.

  24. John Emerson says:

    This may be it, but I don’t have JSTOR.

  25. onelook throws up a few more salmony synonyms –“samlet”, “fingerling”, “hepper”– as well as “gibfish” for a male salmon and “gerlind” for “a salmon returning from the sea the second time”. The last gives hope for a keltic revival, but I’m not sure it’s a real word or a real thing.

  26. A curious instance of a poverty of terms occurs in relation to spiders. If a recent book on arachnids is correct, nobody can decide what to call all the various stages some spiders go through on the way to adulthood, other than 1st instar, 2nd instar…etc.
    A bit like Portuguese names for the days of the week.

  27. John Emerson says:

    Lampreys also lead heroic lives, and they’re also good to eat, and likewise eels, but do these fish get puff-books written about them? No, they do not.

  28. “Actually, Atlantic salmon have been overfished too.”
    Yes, John – I was thinking of Pacific salmon, and ignoring the Atlantic species, which doesn’t quite register as salmon for me. My bad.
    “and “gerlind” for “a salmon returning from the sea the second time”. ”
    This must be a reference for Atlantic salmon, not only because it’s an English word obviously, but also becuase returning a second year is unusual for the Atlantic species and standard for all the Pacific species. And thanks for all these other terms, Molly.
    “Lots of years people want to order….”
    Yeah, and preferably one staffed with people who can actually speak and write English.
    “No, they do not. ”
    ‘Cause they’re icky, that’s why.

  29. John Emerson says:

    Well, actually, Atlantic salmon are salmon, and one reason they don’t register is that aren’t many any more, though unlike the Atlantic cod, they might recover. So I’d say that now is a good time to worry about the Pacific salmon, rather than a bit later when the crisis stage is reached.

  30. j. del col says:

    Until Balboa discovered the Pacific for Europeans, the Atlantic Salmon was the only game in town, so to speak. It was, and still is, the supreme freshwater fly-fishing quarry. Wet flies, mostly, BTW.
    And many of classic double-hook salmon fly patterns can no longer legally be dressed according to the original formulae because they used the feathers of threatened or endangered species.
    Emma Watson of the Harry Potter films is an avid salmon-angler. Ties her own flies, too, or so I’m told.

  31. Having grown up in salmon territory with active fishermen in my life, and with elders keeping alive PacNW traditions translated into English, I find most of the salmon terms familiar. The ones I didn’t know from my youth were “alevin”, “grilse”, “baggot”, and “kelt”. The last only makes me think of stone hand-axes, and the other three sound like nonsense. Maybe “baggot” is a kind of insult.
    I remember playing a game of Boggle (a kind of spelling game with letter dice) where we got obsessed with words like “redd”, “roe”, “parr”, “smolt”, etc. This may or may not be typical for most kids in Southeast Alaska, but I’m certain none who grew up there would be surprised with such terminology.
    I would post a list of Tlingit salmon vocabulary but it would take me too long and wouldn’t be complete anyway.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    “gerlind” for “a salmon returning from the sea the second time”. … “returning a second year is unusual for the Atlantic species and standard for all the Pacific species.
    Haven’t you got it backwards? Pacific salmon are born in small rivulets, follow them down to the ocean, spend 2 or 3 years there, then return to the rivulets of their birth to spawn and die. It is the Atlantic salmon which can make more than one of these trips.

  33. I’ve eaten jellied eels (at an English seaside resort), they weren’t half as good as salmon.

  34. John Emerson says:

    Off topic: What does “rampant” mean in English? It’s almost always used metaphorically, and I’ve always thought (50+ years) that it meant charging around heedlessly and uncontrollably or something like that. But in French and heraldry it means crawling. Worms are much more likely to be rampant than horses.

  35. John Emerson says:

    Wrong about heraldry.

  36. Ml,
    I do have it backwards. The Atlantic salmon were a symbol of immortality in Irish literature because of the way they returned – how did anyone know this, BTW – did the filid and druids tag them?
    John,
    “What does “rampant” mean in English?”
    The sense I get is “rearing up on the hind legs in a thereatening manner” maybe because a lion rampant is doing that, and maybe also from some kind of semantic bleed-over from “rampart”.
    “and with elders keeping alive PacNW traditions translated into English, I find most of the salmon terms familiar. ”
    This is interesting. How good a fit is there between the two terminologies, and how much of the non-fit is due to differences in the referents?

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Cute spambot.

    once their kidneys have been primed to reverse their usual function of taking in salts and excreting dilute river water

    The gills are very important in the salt metabolism. Taking in salts (as opposed to just retaining them) is done in the gills.

  38. John Emerson says:

    There must be two words merged in one. “Rear up on the hind legs” is the heraldic meaning, but all the others are “crawling along the ground”, like “rampant vines”, etc., distantly derived from the noun “ramp”.
    In the metaphorical meaning “out of control” maybe people merge both, like vines both growing rampantly out of control and also rearing up on their hind legs.

  39. Wot you need is Marie-Lucie.

  40. Well, the Portuguese names are the officially sanctioned church names. In most other languages the church failed to stamp out the very ancient pagan names.

  41. “crawling along the ground”, like “rampant vines”,
    To me, as a gardner, that still sounds like rearing up on its hind legs in a threatening manner, because I am here to tell you that some vine species behave just like that. I am at the moment dreading the vernal return of the hated perennial morning glory – not edible as a yam, not even psychotropic, just horribly invasive. “Rampant spreader” – “invasive weed” for a lot of gardners. The botanical word for crawling is “repens” (I can’t recall seeing ‘rependa’) which unfortunately doesn’t have an Englsigh form. It’s the same root as “reptile”.

  42. A Skeletal History of the Inclination of a French Word to Wander Luxuriantly and Rear with Some Excitement and, Generally, to Romp in the English Language
    Ramp. v.
    1. intr. To creep or crawl on the ground. rare.
    2. To climb, scramble. Now only dial.
    b. Of plants: To climb (up, or upon some support). Now chiefly dial.
    c. Of non-climbing plants: To grow rankly or luxuriantly, to shoot up rapidly. Now dial.
    3. Of beasts: To rear or stand on the hind legs, as if in the act of climbing; to raise the fore-paws in the air; hence, to assume, or be in, a threatening posture. Also of persons: To raise, or gesticulate with, the arms; to clutch wildly at.
    b. To trample in triumph. Obs. rare.
    4. Of persons: To storm or rage with violent gestures; to act in a furious or threatening manner.
    b. transf. of things.
    5. To go about in a loose, immodest way. Obs.
    b. ROMP. Now dial.
    6. To bound, rush, or range about in a wild or excited manner.
    b. To sail swiftly, to scud.
    II. 7. Arch. Of a wall: To ascend or descend from one level to another.
    8. trans. Mil. and Arch. To furnish with a ramp, to build with ramps.

  43. The lycanthropic stream may be the most familiar Scandinavian vehicle of transmogrification, and the berserker bear or wolf the most popular choice of creature for shape-shifters, but the salmon occasionally appears in Nordic stories. Loki once changed into a salmon to escape the wrath of Valhalla, and the dwarf Advari changed into a salmon in the Völsunga Saga. Celtic tradition has extensive salmon lore, one might suspect borrowing, but which tradition is older?

  44. Although I hate ground elder for the same reason that you hate morning glory I think it’s stupid to feel threatened by the plants in one’s garden. I love morning glory, by the way, and I have one (1) example that self seeded about ten years ago.

  45. Well, the Portuguese names are the officially sanctioned church names.
    Ah. That would explain why the two names that survive in Portuguese are Christian (or at least Jewish) in origin.

  46. John Emerson says:

    If your one example turned in 250 examples, would you love them too? Your morning glory is apparently a non-ramping species.

  47. to feel threatened by the plants in one’s garden
    I waged war against Creeping Charlie and Creeping Jenny at my old place for years. The creeping Charlie I managed to pull up by hand and establish borders that prevented it from coming in from the adjacent yards. The creeping Jenny was harder, it kept coming in over the back fence. Its climbing/creeping habit is similar to morning glory, so finally I just planted morning glory which was vigorous enough to edge out the other vine. Now I notice the flowers of the creeping jenny in other yards are growing larger and slightly purple, so they are interbreeding….I have won!…by genetic warfare.

  48. I might love 250. I always looked forward to seeing the white convolvulus or bindweed (white morning glory) that grows along the railway line in Hamburg. It’s so pretty, really one of my favourites.

  49. John Emerson says:

    I sort of like creeping Charlie, if it’s the same thing. It has pretty little flowers and a minty smell.

  50. It’s rampant, it grows up within a beech hedge making it appear to be flowering, but I don’t know why it’s not rampaging through our garden and out into the adjacent countryside.

  51. ramps: Allium tricoccum aka spring onion, ramson, wild leek

  52. they are mythic, like ravens or bears
    or onions

  53. Like Dostoyevski’s story of the onion?
    ” I love morning glory, by the way, and I have one (1) example that self seeded about ten years ago.”
    This is western Washington. Morning glory is like kudzu here. It was someobody’s good idea a long time ago, like the starling vermin someone thought would be so quaint, or those hideous hawthornes someone planted as street trees. Morning glory left alone for ten years here would come in in the middle of the night and strangle you in your sleep.
    Speaking of invasive species, I heard that they introduced chinook salmon into the Great Lakes. Does anybody know how well they are doing?

  54. Get rid of the people & the starlings and morning glory wouldn’t be any problem.

  55. I think there may be a comma needed in the last comment. Here it is: ,.

  56. Get rid of the people & the starlings and morning, glory wouldn’t be any problem.

  57. Thank you.

  58. Gte rid of the people and there wouldn’t be any morning glory. We are the keystone species for a lot of these pests.
    Althuogh, not always. I imagine cougars in England and racoons in Germany can make it on their own by now. Ooopsie. Payback for the damned ivy all up in the doug firs.

  59. pretty little flowers and a minty smell
    Not the same plant. No odor. It has round scalloped leaves and tiny blue flowers, but you never see them if the lawn is mowed. It also sends out runners which root themselves every two inches or so, then branch, so you can pull them up and they keep coming back. It takes over unhealthy lawns and kills them.
    they introduced chinook salmon into the Great Lakes
    I have heard there is salmon in Lake Michigan, but it has enough heavy metals, (mercury? lead?) so that pregnant women are advised not to eat them. Last year I saw a fish swimming upstream toward Wolf Lake (a ten minute drive from lake Michigan)that someone identified as a salmon. It was on the downstream side of a bridge and stayed in that place, still swimming against the current, for several days.
    For some reason, “ramps” or “is rampant” doesn’t sound right to me. More like “running rampant”. And any plant that runs rampant in the garden to the point of crowding out desirable plants would be called invasive.

  60. In gardening, a plant that you didn’t put there but that you are glad to have there anyway is sometimes called a volunteer.

  61. That’s a good one, I must try and remember it.

  62. I am always moved by the story hidden in the etymological kinship of “lox” (on your bagel) and “lahk(s)” as in “lakhs of rupees.”
    It speaks to day when some Indo-European speakers were amazed by the fecundity of salmon runs.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    the fecundity of salmon runs
    The abundance of salmon runs, as of any other seasonally available food supply, is not useful beyond a certain point unless there is a means of preserving that food. Once preserved (originally by drying and/or smoking), the surplus generated by the abundance of the resource makes it available for trading, either for its own sake or as currency.

  64. Lakh isn’t limited to currency: it means 100,000 of anything, which is a bit much even for a salmon run.

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