Assfish, Perjink.

Two words new to me, each funny-sounding in its own way:

1) Liz Langley in National Geographic:

With a name like assfish, you’re probably used to being the butt of jokes, not a top news item.

After seeing a number of stories pop up about a funky little fish newly displayed at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Weird Animal Question of the Week decided to take the author’s prerogative to ask “What in the world is a bony-eared assfish?”

It’s actually a type of cusk-eel, an eel-like fish that resembles a “glorified tadpole, with a bulbous head and a tapering tail,” Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, says via email. […]

In 1887, German ichthyologist Albert Günther bestowed the species with its scientific name, Acanthonus armatus, which may offer a clue to how its common name of bony-eared assfish came about.

Armatus, which means “armed” in Latin, was likely chosen because the fish sports spines off the tip of the nose and the gills. This also perhaps accounts for the “bony-eared” bit, according to Hanke.

Akanthos is Greek for “prickly,” and onus could either mean “hake, a relative of cod,” Hanke says, “or a donkey.”

Thanks, Kobi!

2) Stuart Kelly in the TLS (June 12 2015 — yes, I’m that far behind), the “Books for Summer” feature:

I yield to no one in my admiration for the criticism of James Wood, even when I think he is profoundly wrong, so the nearest chance to be in his company with The Nearest Thing to Life (Vintage) is a pleasure I have been deferring. His perjink precision is always incisive, and his ability to wend personal belief and human regret into insistent value and persisting truth has annoyed the heck out of me for years.

Perjink is a fine Scots word, meaning “Exact, precise, extremely accurate”; the OED says it goes back to the eighteenth century (implied in 1775 R. Forbes Let. 21 Jan. in Lyon in Mourning III. 350 “But how came you not to observe the address I gave you literally and perjinkly?”) and its etymology is unknown. Oh, and The Nearest Thing to Life is an excellent little book.


  1. his ability to wend personal belief and human regret into insistent value and persisting truth

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen wend used transitively before. Is it supposed to mean simply “turn into”? The only transitive use not marked as obsolete in the OED is “1. d. (Naut.) To turn (a ship’s bow or head) to the opposite tack”.

  2. Oh yeah, that bothered me too and I meant to say something about it. Very odd usage.

  3. Any chance it’s somehow “Aas”, as in German for “carrion”? I know there’s a bird called Aasgeier, and the… hm, Hairy Rove Beetle is the Aas-Raubkäfer

  4. A cusk-eel. Right.

    (Cusk, the OED says, helpfully, is another term for the torsk in the UK, or the burbot in the US. Both are in the cod family and are unrelated to the cusk-eel. An etymology is wanting.)

  5. …a little research has shown me that Albert Günther worked at the British Museum and that it’s very, very unlikely that anybody has ever called this fish anything other than “AAAAHHHH! KILL IT WITH FIRE!”, in German or in any other language. Oh well.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Perjink is a fine Scots word […] and its etymology is unknown.

    I propose that per is latinate and jink is back-formed from jinx, i.e. “by magic coincidence”. Alternatively, jink might be from No. jenke v. “adjust” < jamn “even”, but that works less well with the latinate preposition..

    TR: wend used transitively
    Hat: Very odd usage.

    Scottish, that too? It didn’t bother me at all, maybe because Norwegian vende can be used that way: Vende nederlag til seier “Turn defeat into victory”.

  7. @AG: Any chance it’s somehow “Aas”, as in German for “carrion”?

    According to Duden, there was a MHG and OHG āz̡ = food, meal, as well as a MHG ās = meat to feed dogs and falcons, carrion. Both are related to “essen”.

    These two forms conflated to Aas in NHG.

    Nothing to do with donkeys.

  8. Trond Engen says

    No. åtsel “carrion”, åte “bait”.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I’m intrigued by that ‘cusk’ word. If it wasn’t for the use for codfish, I’d suggest a variant for of ‘cask’ “helmet”, but it’s more likely because the spikes below the mouth look like a cod’s beard. The beard being the defining feature of a cod, it’s a good chance the name itself has to do with it. I got an idea it might be a North Scottish form of ‘whisk’, but the h is unetymological.

    Or it could be somehow related to torsk. ON þorskr/þoskr and its relatives are often (and for good reasons) taken to be derived from PG ‘þurska- “drying” < *þurs- “dry”, first denoting the end product stockfish. Unfortunately, ‘cusk’ and þurs- are phonologically too distant to lend themselves easily to folk etymology. How about tusk being folk-etymology-sized on both sides?

  10. Vende is good Danish for ‘turn around,’ both literally and figuratively and both upside down and front to back. (It has even been ‘unpassivized’: vinduet vender mod nord = ‘the window faces north’).

    Causative of vinde = ‘wind,’ it says, but that word feels pretty causative/active itself.

  11. Trond, the OED has

    perhaps < per- prefix (compare per- prefix 1d) + a second element ultimately of imitative origin (compare dink adj.1, gim adj., jimp n., jimp adj., jink n.1 in similar senses

    and the DSL has clickable etymologies at the bottom of the page: (it's 'Prob.' with you on per-). has 'jinx' as a late Americanism. Perjinx should be a word, though, useful for things like 'perjinx it'll rain' which I think should bring about the undesirable outcome because it implies what you're hoping for.

  12. I, too, was startled by the use of “wend”. But “wend” in “wend your way” is transitive, isn’t it?

  13. Trond, I think you might like Ian Hamilton Finlay, who points at the implicit with sophistifolk etymologies among other things (‘das gepflügte Land ~ the fluted land’, ‘Arrosoir/ evening arrow‘, ‘Is there a ship named The Wave Sheaf?’) (gepflügte: plowed; arrosoir: watering-can)

  14. I, too, was startled by the use of “wend”. But “wend” in “wend your way” is transitive, isn’t it?

    Well, that’s a fixed phrase, so it doesn’t really count. But I see the OED (entry updated 2013) has 8. g. trans. To cause to move; to direct:

    a1839 T. H. Bayly Songs, Ballads & Other Poems (1844) II. 68 Mary left her governess, and to the boys she came To help her brother wend his kite, or look at Edward’s boat.
    1899 E. Waugh tr. M. Mrazovic Selam 183 Undecided whither to wend his steps in order to obey Meira’s behest, he mechanically passed down the street.
    1906 C. M. Doughty Dawn in Brit. IV. xiv. 113 The hero, for he would not urge his steeds, In Britons’ press, nor more might wend his war-cart, Would have leapt down to battle on his feet.
    1917 C. F. Burton Call of Mate ix. 72 Soon a second trail wended him about through the chaparral to the right.
    1999 R. Hobb Mad Ship (2000) 47 It [sc. a log] is too long to wend it down the corridors to get it outside.
    2011 D. Winslow Satori cxxxi. 427 Bay skillfully wended his chopsticks to pick out the delicate pieces of fish.

    And 2011 is pretty damn contemporary, so I guess it’s kosher.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Trond, I think you might like Ian Hamilton Finlay

    Yes, thanks, I think I might. What you call ‘sophistifolk etymologies’ I’d call cross-linguistic puns, but that doesn’t diminish their value.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Sco. jink “move from side to side” can be reconciled with No. jenke “adjust”.

  17. Trond, yes, puns, including intra- and non-linguistic ones (, are an important tool/form for IHF, and I think your term is the better one.

  18. This really seems like a dead end, but I did find a Finnish Swedish word “asfisk” which would be cognate to the imaginary German “Aasfisch” that popped into my head when I first saw “assfish”:

  19. Well, that’s a fixed phrase, so it doesn’t really count.

    I’ve hardly ever encountered the word outside that fixed phrase and very similar ones, so when I encounter it outside those phrases I think I am more apt to be startled by an intransitive use than by a transitive one.

  20. Trond Engen says

    AG: a Finnish Swedish word “asfisk”

    Nice find. I see that as “cadaver” is also present in mainland Swedish and said to be borrowed from MLG as “food (for animals); bait”.

  21. Trond Engen says

    However, English wouldn’t get a Low German-derived term for baitfish from Swedish and use it for a tropical fish. It’s not recorded in Norwegian, so it would have to be borrowed from MLG or Dutch. But there’s no particular reason to believe that Swedish borrowed the compund rather than made it itself with the borrowed word as.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I mean, the onus is on you.

  23. But “wend” in “wend your way” is transitive, isn’t it?

    Nah, it’s a cognate object (actually an internal object since the two words aren’t cognate), nothing to do with transitivity.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Or do you mean it’s native in English, only first recorded when used for the tropical bad fish, similar to ‘shark’? That would mean OE *æsfisc > Mod. Eng. ‘asfish’, folk etymologized as ‘assfish’. I could believe that.

  25. No, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t have a theory about tropical Swedish sailors (although there must have been some)! I just don’t think the fish particularly looks like an ass, so I was wildly casting around for other words that might have mutated into “ass”. Your OE idea is actually less implausible than anything I had in mind.

  26. …aaaand I just got the “onus” joke.

  27. Isn’t No jenke = Sw dial jänka < jämka causative to jämn < PG *ebna = ‘even’? The Sw dialectal forms do mean things like ‘move a little, fiddle with’ (think of nudging one board to make it align with another when constructing a floor, for instance).

    I think the Scandinavian forms are old enough to be the source for Sc jink; iänka is cited as Late Old Swedish (y. fsv.), and the similar senses make the equation deliciously tempting…

  28. Nah,

    Gary, I can’t immediately find an explanation of the term “internal object”. What are some other examples?

  29. George Gibbard says

    [Comment removed at poster’s request.]

  30. Empty: To sing a song, to dance a dance, to eat food: in all cases, the meaning of the apparent object is actually contained in the meaning of the verb, and it adds nothing semantically (though it may do so pragmatically). If the words are unrelated, as in to eat food, it is a non-cognate but still internal object. Historically, to read (interpret) a riddle was another case of this.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Meanwhile ὄναγρος ‘wild ass’ is apparently a head-initial compound; how common is that in Ancient Greek?

    Pretty common, and pretty random; I have no idea why a philosopher isn’t a soph(i)ophile.

  32. Trond Engen says

    Lars: the similar senses make the equation deliciously tempting…

    Also, the relation between the senses of perjink “well adjusted, straight, uptight” and jink “wag, move quickly” is better understood in light of the Scandinavian word.

  33. Trond Engen says

    AG: Your OE idea is actually less implausible than anything I had in mind.

    It would be stronger if we had a reasonably recent attestation of ‘as(s)’ for bait in English.

  34. jink / iänka: I have to admit that I have no idea if [i̯ɛ-] > [d͡ʒɪ-] is even a thing internally to the history of Scots, or English for that matter — juice, John and so on were borrowed from Old French with [d͡ʒ-]. I’m worried that we’ve been misled by spelling — a recent loan would probably be †yenk.

  35. Head-initial compounds (where the head is a noun*) in Greek are somewhat common, though not nearly as common as head-final ones. They mostly come from univerbations of head-initial NPs: e.g. alongside hippopotamos there is (an earlier attested, I believe) hippos potamios; alongside aksiologos “worth speaking of” there is aksios logou. And indeed next to onagros we also have onos agrios (Herodotus etc.).

    *Ones where the head is a verbal root are, on the other hand, very common: philosophos is one of these, “love-wisdom” rather than “wisdom-lover”.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Ah. I’m not good at this – I was never taught the “head” terminology.

  37. Trond Engen says

    Lars: I’m worried that we’ve been misled by spelling — a recent loan would probably be †yenk.

    Critical point. And with its hard g’s and k’s Scottish had less of that development anyway.

    Aside: I sort of imagined the etymologically obscure No. sjekte “type of boat” to be a borrowing from some English word which in turn was a borrowing from Du. jacht (an older loan than yacht, I mean), maybe even by way of No. jekt. But now I think jekt is an early borrowing of yacht and sjekte a back-formation from plural compounds. Recent s-mobile!

  38. George Gibbard says

    David Marjanović, you didn’t say anything wrong: most people (including TR, it appears) would call φιλόσοφος a head-initial compound even taking the first part to be the root of φιλῶ ‘I love’ rather than the noun φίλος ‘friend’.

    Bloomfield, though, would only call something a head if it can occur independently, so he says a prepositional phrase is exocentric (not internally headed) in case the preposition can’t occur as an adverb without a complement. This means that in Bloomfieldian terms adjunction but not complementation is an endocentric construction.

  39. In Minnesota and South Dakota, the word torsk can be seen regularly on restaurant menus and supermarket labels. I wonder how common it is in the rest of the United States, where Scandinavian influence is not so pronounced.
    For curious LH readers, the monotypic genus Acanthonus was established by A. C. L. G. Günther here, in the 1878 volume of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. On the previous pages, he used the same Neo-Latin element -onus in the names of the bathypelagic fish Typhlonus nasus (“Blind-hake the nose”, I suppose, because of the fish’s peculiar overshot snout) and Aphyonus gelatinosus (“Fry-hake the gelatinous”, from ἀφύη, “small fry”—not “fry” because it was fried up with chips). In his 1880 work An Introduction to the Study of Fishes, Günther included the family Ophidiidae, which contains Acanthonus, under the order Anacanthini. This order also included hake, cod, burbot, and other codlike fishes, so the intention of invoking Greek ὄνος was doubtless for the meaning “hake, codlike fish” rather than “ass, donkey” (see section II of the entry for ὄνος in LSJ). But I do enjoy the thought that someone familiar with the bulbous heads and soft bones of Acanthonus armatus decided to render the Latin name as assfish in English, with a wink and a nudge.

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