I recently ran across one of those excitingly unfamiliar words with an interesting etymology, to wit, the OED’s permit n.² (first published 2005):

Any of several deep-bodied carangid fishes of the genus Trachinotus that are found in warm waters of the western Atlantic and the Caribbean; spec. T. falcatus, which is fished for sport and for food.

1884 The African pompano—Trachynotus goreensis… In the Gulf of Mexico it is not unusual, being known at Key West as the ‘Permit’.
G. B. Goode in G. B. Goode et al., Fisheries U.S.: Section I 329

1911 Other species [of pompano] found on our eastern coast are the ‘old-wife’.., the ‘round pompano’, or ‘Indian River permit’; the ‘permit’ or ‘great pompano’.
Rep. Comm. U.S. Bureau Fisheries 1908 314/1

1994 Most guests come seeking fly fishing’s Grand Slam, hoping to land a bonefish, a permit and a tarpon—the sport’s Big Three.
New York Times 27 November v. 12/2

The etymology:

Irregularly < Spanish palometa any of several species of fish (1526), probably < an unattested Doric variant (with παλ-) of ancient Greek πηλαμύδ-, πηλαμύς young tunny, bonito (see pelamid n.), perhaps via Italian palamita (14th cent.) or Catalan palomida (1300), or perhaps via Mozarabic.

An alternative etymology derives the Spanish term < paloma dove (see palomino n.) + -eta (< Catalan -eta -et suffix¹). However, in Spanish the term is only attested as the name of a fish, while Catalan palometa has a range of senses, including ‘butterfly’, but is not used to designate a fish except in a small area, where it is probably borrowed from Spanish.

Once again, I must deprecate the OED’s refusal to name authors in periodical citations; that 1994 NYT quote, as you can see here, is by Tessa Melvin. (I would also prefer it if they did not present snippets with factitious majuscules — “Most” does not begin the sentence — but I realize that may be captious carping.)


  1. It occurred to me a second after hitting Post that I should have titled it “Permit the Fish.”

  2. In Israel, פלמידה לבנה palamida levaná ‘white palamida’ is the popular term for the Narrow-barred Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus commerson, an Indian Ocean fish which has spread into the Mediterranean in the early 20th century by so-called Lessepsian migration, i.e. via the Suez Canal.

    I would guess the name came from Greek fishermen, with the e changing to a by assimilation or (more likely) by guessed pronunciation of the name in unpointed Hebrew spelling.

  3. Correction: Modern Greek already has an -a-.

    There’s also the related פלמידא palmidá in the Babylonian Talmud, referring to the Atlantic bonito, Sarda sarda.

  4. “However, in Spanish the term is only attested as the name of a fish, while Catalan palometa has a range of senses, including ‘butterfly’, …”

    Compare another diminutive of a word in the columba/palumba/paloma family: vulumbrella, applied in older Neapolitan to figs that are young or unseasonably developed (or similar). That lyric is sung here, by Australia’s Kavisha Mazzella.

  5. PER-mit or per-MIT?

  6. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy offers support to the OED.

    “ palometa1
    Del gr. bizant. πηλαμύδα pēlamýda, acus. de πηλαμύς, -ύδος pēlamýs, -ýdos ‘bonito1’, infl. en su forma por paloma.
    1. f. Pez comestible, parecido al jurel, aunque algo mayor que este.”

    Edible fish, similar to the horse mackerel/jack mackerel , though somewhat larger.

  7. It’s паламуд palamud in Bulgarian, with an “a” and a “u” (the fish).

  8. Interesting! I wonder why the “u”?

  9. Ryan O'Donnell says

    I think the Bulgarian one is a different fish. Pretty sure that’s the aforementioned Sarda sarda (Atlantic bonito), also called palamut in Turkish.

  10. Bonito and small tuna (like many found in the Mediterranean and Black Seas) are very similar. It would be unsurprising if some Balkan and Mediterranean-Basin languages originally had only single shared words for both groups of fish.

  11. паламуд

    Interesting! I wonder why the “u”?

    Sarda sarda (Atlantic bonito), also called palamut in Turkish.

    Turkish palamut can be heard seven days a week in any fish market in Turkey. (My housemate worked as a cook in restaurants most of his life and buys palamut all the time to fry for us at home.) I imagine the Bulgarian is borrowed from the Turkish, and the Turkish from Medieval and Modern Greek παλαμίδα. (Entry for Medieval Greek παλαμίδα, παλαμύδα in E. Kriaras, Λεξικὸ τῆς μεσαιωνικῆς ἑλληνικῆς δημώδους γραμματείας, bottom of the page here, with citation from Theodore Prodromus, it seems. Palamida is also used in Judaeo-Spanish.)

    The u in Turkish palamut would just be the result of backing through the imposition of vowel harmony on this everyday colloquial word. The -u- appears, rather than -ı-, through rounding by the m. For other examples of such rounding, take Turkish hamur ‘dough’ from Arabic خمير ḫamīr ‘leavened dough, raised dough; leavened bread’, or Arnavut ‘Albanian’ from Αρβανίτης ‘Arvanite, Albanian’, or havut ‘camel’s pack saddle’ from Persian هويد hawīd. More or less echt Turkic words also keep -u- after -a- in violation of standard Turkish rounding harmony rules: çamur ‘mud’, çapul ‘raid, pillage’, kavun ‘melon’, savunmak ‘defend’, etc.

    One might also propose the survival of a Doric *παλαμύς, *παλαμύδ- with υ pronounced as [u]. Compare the Doric -a- in the -tan- of İstanbul and [u] in Tsakonian [suko] ‘fig’ < ancient Greek σύκον, for example. (On such Doric features, see the links given in this comment on LH.) However, this seems less likely to me. Evliya Çelebi, for example, apparently mentions the bonito in a list of fish for sale in Istanbul, and modern editions of Evliya’s Seyâhatnâme in the Republican Turkish alphabet transcribe his 17th-century Ottoman form as palamida. I haven’t had time to ferret it out in an edition of his work in Ottoman script, because I am on the road.

  12. Thanks, I was hoping you’d weigh in!

  13. פלמידא palmidá in the Babylonian Talmud

    Is the reading פלמידא actually better supported than פלמודא ? Sokoloff gives it with vav.

    (For the curious LH readers, the passage is here. Search on the page for falmuda.)

  14. This permit reminded me how in early 90s I was perplexed by an advertisment of “Wrigley’s spearmint”. They russified it as /rigli spermint/.

  15. Xerîb, פלמידא must be my mistake. I see no trace of it.

    Löw is worth citing (Aramäische Fischnamen, p. 14 [562]; underscores mark small caps):

    Πηλαμύς פולמוס l. פי׳, b אפונס Thynnus (_Scomber_) sarda, der mittelländische Bonit _Oken_ 196.198, im babli פלמודא Az 40ª, woraus البلمو _Fraenkel_ 123 mit a wie παλαμυδία Soph. sv und in Venedig: palamida. Zum u der zweiten Silbe _Schweigh_. Athen. Not. II 347. Pelamys = sarda Salmas. Plin. Ex. 129 A 2. Sonst π. = der junge Thunfisch. Athen. VII 303ᵇ u. Plinius _Jacobs_ zu Ael. H.A. XV 10. _Krauss_ 459.

  16. my mistake

    I see that in my comment above, I cut Persian هويد hawīd from Steingass online and didn’t adjust the transcription to havīd, and I cut σύκον from an article on Tsakonian without adjusting the Ancient Greek accent to σῦκον.

  17. irregularly < Spanish palometa, any of several species of fish (1526)

    I wonder if we can expand this and add some detail to this etymology. Some notes and speculations:

    (1) The first cite in the OED for permit, from 1884 here, mentions Key West. In connection with this, the entry for palometa in the online Diccionario de americanismos of the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española is interesting (boldface mine):

    1. f. Mx, Gu, Ho:S, Ni. Pez marino de hasta 35 cm de longitud, de coloración plateada, con grandes mandíbulas que pueden proyectarse hacia delante y hacia abajo, cuya aleta dorsal se une con la parte espinosa muy alta y la aleta caudal muy bifurcada. (Gerridae; Diapterus olisthostomus, Eucinostomus gula, E. melanopterus, E. argentu [argenteus?], Gerres abbeviatus). ◆ palomita.
    2. Cu. pámpano (Carangidae; Trachinotus carolinus).
    3. Bo:E. caribe, pez de agua dulce.
    4. Bo:E. cupaneca. [Astronotus spp.]

    So it is in nearby Cuba that palometa designates a fish of the genus Trachinotus, like pompano and permit, in the Americas. Similarly, fishing guides for Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico also indicate that palometa is used for some species of the genus Trachinotus.

    (2) Note that a Portuguese word for various carangid fishes is in fact palmeta, as here or here. This looks like it may be a loanword from Spanish or another form of Romance, because of the persistence of an originally intervocalic l.

    But what about the fact that it has three syllables? Is this palmeta a sporadic syncope, or a folk-etymology modification after palma ‘palm of the hand’ or perhaps ‘palm tree’? For this last possibility, note that the original meaning Spanish pámpano ‘pompano’ (the carangid fish) is ‘shoot of a grapevine, young foliage of a grape vine’; cf. Catalan pàmpol ‘grape leaf’; Portuguese pâmpano, French pampre ‘branch of a grapevine with its foliage’; also Spanish pámpana ‘grape leaf’. From the shape of these fish?

    But palmeta is also the Portuguese word for quoin (‘wooden wedge used to keep casks from shifting and rolling around’, ‘wooden wedge used in raising and aiming cannon’), Spanish cuña. So alteration due to the shape of the fish?

    (3) Can we relate the -er- of English permit to features of Antillean Spanish varieties, which often show modifications of original r and l in syllable coda? Perhaps we can propose a colloquial Cuban *[pammeta] borrowed as permit? See for example the treatment of clusters of r and l with following consonant here. Perhaps there was also -eta confused with the common dimunitive ending -ita at some point (cf. palomita in the ASALE dictionary above).

    We might further suspect features of Bozal Spanish (in a *parmeta, *pammeta?). In this regard, note Armin Schwegler, ‘Portuguese remnants in the Afro-Hispanic diaspora’, in Portuguese-Spanish Interfaces: Diachrony, synchrony, and contact (2014), p. 414:

    In Latin America there existed several special circumstances under which the transition from (Afro-)Portuguese to Spanish was not carried out completely, thus enabling the preservation of rare and valuable remnants of the former Afro-Portuguese/Afro-Spanish interface that was once commonplace at the height of the slave trade… Yet another example, albeit quite different and chronologically later, is found in Cuba, where Bakongo slaves and their cohorts formed secretive religious communities (known as “familias”). In these private groups they practiced a religion that collectively became known as Palo Monte or Palo Monte Mayombe. To this day, the ritual jargon of traditional Paleros or Mayomberos proffers restructured Kikongo, alongside bozal Spanish containing occasional tokens of archaizing (Afro-)Portuguese.

    Influenced by African languages and Portuguese, some varieties of Bozal Spanish apparently showed indications of neutralization of an l/r distinction occurring even intervocalically. (See also for example here for African-influenced varieties of Spanish in general.) The OED’s first cite from Key West is earlier even than the end of slavery in Cuba in 1886.

    (4) What did the -er- of permit originally represent? What was the immediate borrowing variety of English like? Rhotic or non-rhotic? I have no idea—in Key West, there was a mix of formerly enslaved people of African origin, some of whom may have even been born in Africa or spoken Yoruba or Kikongo among themselves in Cuba; Southern whites; white Northern entrepreneurs; free biracial and multiracial people; refugees from Cuba’s Ten Years’ War… And so, a mixture of nonrhotic and perhaps rhotic varieties, people speaking different varieties of Spanish, speakers of English as a second language… The rest of southern Florida was sparsely populated: Dade County had a population of 257 people in 1880; Fort Myers, located near the site of a former Spanish fishing rancho, had a population of 575 in 1890; and the first schoolhouse in Palm Beach opened in 1886! Any precision here seems hopeless. The word permit was not confined to the Keys even at the time. A fisheries report from 1897 for the Indian River lagoon (relatively north on the Atlantic coast of Florida, east of Orlando) gives “Permit” in quotation marks (of which the report says: “Common names more or less local in their use by Indian River fishermen are inclosed in quotation marks”).

    (5) As another possibility to explain the aberrant form of English permit, note the existence of Spanish-speaking fishing communities, or ranchos, with close links to Regla, Cuba, on the southern Gulf Coast of Florida during the first half of the 19th century. John E. Worth (2012) Creolization in Southwest Florida: Cuban Fishermen and “Spanish Indians,” ca. 1766–1841, pp. 142–160 in Cosmopolitanism and Ethnogenesis, Colonialism and Resistance: Themes in the Historical Archaeology of Florida (Historical Archaeology, Vol. 46, No. 1) offers an extensive and fascinating historical account of these ranchos, where Hispanophone fishermen from Spain, the Canaries, Cuba, and other parts of the Spanish Empire intermarried with indigenous people, particularly the Creek (Muscogee) who had come to dominate the coast. (As these communities dissolved during the US government’s war with the Seminoles, the US government abducted some of these people and forcibly removed them to Oklahoma, while others may have relocated to Cuba.) I imagine that no record exists of what the Spanish spoken by these fishing ranchero communities was like.

    (6) Spanish palometa, any of several species of fish (1526)

    This date is that of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias, chapter LXXXIII; on page 50 of the pdf of the scan available here. Modernized text:

    En Tierra-Firme los pescados que hay, y yo he visto, son muchos y muy diferentes; y pues de todos no será posible decirse aquí, diré de algunos; y primeramente digo que hay unas sardinas anchas y las colas bermejas, excelente pescado y de los mejores que allá hay. Mojarras, diahacas, jureles, dahaos, rajas, salmonados; todos éstos, y otros muchos, cuyos nombres no tengo en memoria, se toman en los ríos en grandísima abundancia, y asimismo camarones muy buenos; pero en la mar asimismo se toman algunos de los de suso nombrados, y palometas, y acedias, y pargos, y lizas, y pulpos, y doradas, y sábalos muy grandes, y langostas, y jaibas, y ostias, y tortugas grandísimas, y muy grandes tiburones, y manatíes, y morenas, y otros muchos pescados, y de tanta diversidad y cantidad de ellos, que no se podría expresar sin mucha escritura y tiempo para lo escribir.

    It is not possible to determine what species Oviedo might have intended. Probably not Gerres, since he begins the list with moxarras.


    In sum, all this is very nebulous, but I had fun looking into the matter, so I thought I would share my notes and speculations with LH readers, since I will probably never return to this question.

  18. Thanks very much for that — I’m sure I’m not the only one who had fun reading it! It always interests me to see the spadework of etymology. And it was worth it just to learn about Bozal Spanish.

  19. A further question… How old is the use of permit in Bahamian English? Note one treatment of the ɴᴜʀsᴇ vowel in Bahamian as [ɜi], and original /l/ and /ɾ/ > /j/ in syllable coda in some Cuban Spanish varieties.

    As for Jamaican English, I hope LH readers can see cobbler, a word for Trachinotus falcatus in Jamaican English here.

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