In David Quammen’s NYRB review (Nov. 8, 2018) of Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, by Menno Schilthuizen, he writes:

And then there’s a humble little fish called the mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus), a bottom-wallowing native of brackish waters along the Eastern Seaboard, including big urban ports such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, that are silted up with decades of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and other industrial waste. A genetic study of Bridgeport’s mummichogs, Schilthuizen reports, found genome changes that protect those fish from the effects of PCBs. Who says there’s no good news in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London?

I found the word mummichog enchanting; I looked it up in the OED (entry updated March 2003), where it is defined as:

A killifish; esp. Fundulus heteroclitus (family Cyprinodontidae), a small marine killifish of sheltered parts of the east coast of North America, which has dark and silvery vertical bars on the sides and is often kept in aquaria or used as bait.

The first and last citations are:

1787 T. Pennant Arctic Zool. II. Suppl. 149 Inhabits New York, where it is known by the Indian name of Mummy Chog.
1851 M. H. Perley Rep. New Brunswick (1852) 194 It [sc. the striped Killifish] is also known by its Indian name of ‘mummachog’, corrupted by the English settlers on the Gulf shore of New Brunswick, where it abounds, to ‘mammychub’.
1977 Audubon Sept. 8/1 The first modification of my reverent attitude resulted from my need for mummichogs, alias killifish.
1987 J. Hersey Blues (1988) 82 A handful of mummichogs, robust and chubby four-and five-inch light brown fish with dark bars along their flanks..swam downward from the surface.

The etymology is “< Narragansett moamitteaũg, plural (1643 in R. Williams A Key into the Language of America)”; I guess it’s not further analyzable, which is a pity. As for the almost as delightful killifish, the best the lexicographers can do is (in the words of the AHD) “Perhaps KILL² [i.e., ‘creek’] + FISH.”


  1. Many sites seem to say that it means “going in crowds”. The earliest source I can see for this is this 1926 book on Marine Fishes by Nichols and Breder:

    This name, sometimes shortened to “mummy,” is of Indian derivation, and signifies “going in crowds.”

    This 2001 book, Introduction to the Narragansett Language: A Study of Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America by Moondancer (Francis Joseph O’Brien, Jr) and Strong Woman (Julianne Jennings) goes through Williams’ text explaining many of the Narragansett terms and says of moamitteaûg (see p.88 of 143, footnote 617):

    Related to “together, great many” (the “smelt”?); also called “ornamented minnow”.

  2. From Trumbull’s dictionary of the closely related Natick:

    *moamitteaūg (Narr.), “a little sort of fish, half as big as sprats, plentiful in winter. “— R. W. 105. Perhaps the smelt (Osmerus eperlanus), but the name may be applied to any species which ‘goes in shoals’ or ‘a great many together.’ It has been corrupted to mummychaug and mummachog, by which name several species of small fish are popularly known, especially the ornamented minnow (Hydrargyra omata, LeSueur). From mohmoeaü; pass. and mutual form, mohmoitteauog, they go gathered together or in great numbers.

  3. >From Trumbull’s dictionary of the closely related Natick:

    Your post adds something. It’s worth noting that Trumbull’s “R.W. 105” refers this back to the Roger Williams book referenced in the post.

    Dissenter, founder of Rhode Island (sort of), author of the first dictionary of a native language (per Wiki, maybe “in English”?), “he tutored John Milton in Dutch and American Indian languages in exchange for refresher lessons in Hebrew.”

    It’s a pretty good career.

  4. Killifish is from the Dutch kil ‘creek’, as in Schuylkill or the Catskills.

  5. David Marjanović says

    No relation to the murder hornet.

  6. From Trumbull’s dictionary of the closely related Natick… From mohmoeaü; pass. and mutual form, mohmoitteauog, they go gathered together or in great numbers.

    Thank you for finding this, Y! It’s very satisfying.

  7. any relation to place-names like Pachaug in CT (or any other -chaugs , -chogues, etc. out there?)

    also, is there a name for pairs of compound words made of the same elements reversed, like killifish and Fishkill, or… um, bookcase and casebook?

  8. Thank you for finding this, Y! It’s very satisfying.


  9. CuConnacht says

    AG, I have no idea, but I bet that Pachaug is from the same Algonquian word as Patchogue on Long Island.

  10. John Cowan says

    And perhaps related to Lake Char­gogg­a­gogg­man­chaugg­a­gogg­chau­bun­a­gung­a­maugg, aka Lake Chabunagungamaug, aka Lake Webster.

  11. Killifish is from the Dutch kil ‘creek’, as in Schuylkill or the Catskills

    Calling a fish a ‘creek fish’ seems both unimaginative and highly unspecific

  12. Wiktionary says that Dutch kil is either a creek in general, or more specifically “a waterway on sand flats or mud flats”. 17th-century NY Dutch might have had its own usages. What are the various kils in the Eastern US like? I live in faraway California.

    The older orthography of Eastern Algonquian is a pain. I can’t tell if Trumbull copied all his sources correctly or not. Is “ü” the same as “ū”? What are all these vowel combinations?

  13. Tough little guys:

    Killifish have the remarkable ability to endure various extremes of temperature, salinity, and even oxygen levels down to nearly zero. Believe it or not, I have seen fishermen hold live killies out of water for hours in their pants or shirt pocket to be saved later, flipping and flopping around, for live bait. As long their gills are kept moist, killifish can survive, albeit I’m sure uncomfortably, for several hours out of water.

  14. This helps with the orthography. Maybe it’s something like /mahmitʲaːk/.

  15. John Cowan says

    Around NYC the kills are tidal straits: the Kill van Kull on the northwestern shore of Staten Island that separates it from the Bayonne Peninsula. It means ‘creek of the pass’, the pass being the col (Fr > Du) in the ridge running down the peninsula. Close by is the Arthur Kill, which runs along the western edge of Staten Island and separates it from the mainland of New Jersey: this is < achterkil, ‘back channel’ distorted by folk etymology, though proper nativization would have made it Afterkill. There is also the Bronx Kill, now partly filled in, that provides recreational water and runs between the Bronx and Randalls Island, where NYC puts its public athletic fields, playgrounds (though there are many in more ordinary city parks), and picnicking grounds.

    Further north the kills are streams that flow into the Hudson. Lastly there is Fresh Kills, NYC’s now-disused landfill; there are many freshwater streams in the area, so there is no actual implication that corpses were dumped there.

  16. David Marjanović says


    Preceded by Overkill, no doubt.

  17. I bet that Pachaug is from the same Algonquian word as Patchogue on Long Island.

    W. Tooker, The Indian Place-names on Long Island and Islands Adjacent: With Their Probable Significations, says:

    PATCHOGUE: a village in the western part of Brookhaven town. Pochoug Neck containing some three hundred acres was number three, in the seven necks of land disposed of in Avery’s lottery in 1758. The name by some of the Long Island historians is said to have been derived from a so-called Pochaug tribe of Indians. That an individual Indian has a similar cognomen and lived in Brookhaven town is proven by a deed of 1703, where Paushag signs as one of the grantors. The popular meaning, among the residents of the village is, “a place of many streams,” but the etymology of the word will not allow this inter pretation. Variations are Pochoug, 1758; Pochog, 1759; Patchague, 1825. Similar names of places occur in New England viz.: Pachaug River in Voluntown and Griswold, Conn.; Pachaug Neck on Taunton River, Mass. Westbrook, Conn., was called Pochaug (on some maps Patchogue). Trumbull gives: Pachaug=pâchau-auke, denoting a “turning-place”, whence perhaps the river’s name; and says: “Patchogue in Brookhaven, L. I., is probably the same name.” But Pochaug in Westbrook, he derives from pohshâog (Eliot), “where they divide in two,” from the fact that two rivers came together there and were regarded by the Indians as one divided river (Indian Names in Connecticut).

  18. In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein was vacationing in Cutchogue. Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner drove out to look for him, ended up in Patchogue, then figured out their mistake, found Cutchogue, and eventually Einstein. They talked him into adding his signature on the letter to Roosevelt, urging him to start what would become the Manhattan Project.

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