As I said here, fish names are a tangle, and Andy Martin, writer, academic, and (according to Wikipedia) “the first surfing correspondent to The Times (London),” quickly had his fill of them when trying to produce a new translation of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, as he reports in an Opinionator post:

Somewhere around page 3 of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” I got this feeling that I was starting to drown in fish. There are an awful lot of fish down there, and there were possibly even more in the middle of the 19th century. Whereas my ichthyological vocabulary, whether in French or English or indeed any other language, was severely limited. The fish (and assorted oceanic mammals), in other words, far outnumbered my linguistic resources. I now know I should just have boned up on fish, the way any decent, respectable translator would have done. […]

Instead I started counting how many pages there were and calculating how much I was getting paid per fish. It didn’t add up. I realize now that I should have switched to “Around the World in Eighty Days” – there are far fewer fish in that one.

He goes on to describe how his Dutch translator simply omitted a metaphor he was mildly proud of, and how a French translator mangled “the classic Groucho Marx joke, which goes (in one of its variants), ‘You’re only as old as the woman you feel.'” Funny stuff; thanks, David and Bonnie!


  1. He should have referred immediately to the classic book on fish names in various Mediterranean languages, by Alan Davidson, of which a very well used copy resides on our shelves.
    As Wiki says : “While living in Tunis [as a British diiplomat], his wife asked him to look for a cookbook on fish because she did not recognize any of the local varieties. Not being able to find one he wrote one himself together with the Italian ichthyologist Giorgio Bini, the world’s greatest living authority on seafish in the Mediterranean at this time, who happened to be visiting. The original manuscript was copied with a stencil machine. A copy of Seafish Of Tunisia And The Central Mediterranean reached the British cooking guru Elizabeth David, who passed it on to Penguin Books, which published it in 1972 as Mediterranean Seafood. The book has since become a standard reference work, and is characterized by its very creative mixture of biology and recipes.”
    Later he wrote standard works on seafood of the North Atrlantic, S-E Asian and separately Laotian fish cooking, and the encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Food.

  2. Which I wrote about here.

  3. John Emerson says

    Fish and other wildlife names are remarkably confused. I spent a fair period figuring out that the fish I grew up calling a dogfish was either an burbot / eelpout or a bowfin — not sure which, they were common in the area but I only saw one once. These are entirely unrelated fish that both seem doglike. (As I remember, Wiki lists 100 species of freshwater and saltwater dogfish.)
    Besides popular names, commercial names are also a mess. Whitefish, cisco, tullabee, chub, bloater and lake herring are commercial / popular names for any one of five closely related commercial non-sport salmonid species in the Coregonus family (Coregonus alpenae, Coregonus artedi, Coregonus johannae, Coregonus hoyi, Coregonus kiyi, ,Coregonus nigripinnis, Coregonus reighardi, or Coregonus zenithicus).
    It’s possible that not every commercial name is used for all of the species, but by and large I think that it’s a many-to-many onto mapping (rare in logic) with every popular name applying to every species.

  4. And I thought a dogfish was simply a kind of shark.

  5. John Emerson says

    Obviously, eight closely related species.

  6. John Emerson says

    Probably the most famous dogfish is a saltwater shark especially prized for fish and chips.

  7. Indeed, we can roughly date the general replacement of hound by dog as the unspecialized word for canines by the shift of houndfish to dogfish. (Formerly, dog meant ‘bulldog, mastiff’.)

  8. marie-lucie says

    In French, the normal word for ‘dog’ is un chien, but there is also un dogue, a borrowing from English dog, with a more specific meaning: ‘(large) bulldog or other large, fierce-looking dog’, which agrees with the early meaning of the English word.. According to the TLFI, sources from the 15th century (a time of strong French-English rivalry) show that dog was used in English as a derogatory term for French people, who recorded the word as dogue. Un bouledogue for a smaller breed of bulldog dates from the 19th century.

  9. John Emerson says

    Following the rules of regular linguistic succession “dogue” became “frogue”.

  10. Dog < ME dogge < OE *dogca (recorded only in the genitive plural docgena) arose in English, and most sources say ‘etymology unknown’, but there is a very attractive theory that it is a hypocoristic shortening of a noun derived from the OE adjective dox, dosc > dusk(y), as frog < frogge < frogca is derived from the original common Germanic noun *fruskaz > older OE or Norse frosc, G Frosch, Du vors, Icelandic froskur. Nothing else will satisfactorily account for the gemination.

  11. marie-lucie says

    JC a hypocoristic shortening of a noun derived from the OE adjective dox, dosc > dusk(y)
    So this word would refer to the dog breed’s colour?

  12. Yes.

  13. The original literary reference work on gratuitous use of fish, to my memory, is Ausonius’ Mosella (4th c BC)… too many fish to shake a stick at!

  14. fishbase is the place to go to resolve fishy confusions..
    From its front page,
    “32400 Species, 299600 Common names”
    or, about ten common names per species, with some being far higher of course.
    The site as a whole is a work of fascination and beauty.
    The last time wandering through fishbase was for elops. I’d always thought the elops saurus was the same fish across the world, although yclept springer in za, machete in Mexico, ladyfish in Florida and Hawaii. They surely all took a fly the same way and looked like the same fish, though the US ones don’t grow as big for some reason. Wrong as usual, e. saurus was the name Linnaeus gave it, since reclassified into e. machnata, e. capensis, e. hawaiiensis. At least one ichthyologist believes them all to be the same species, though.
    On the other hand Spanish Mackerel is thirteen different species across the world. As John says, a many-many mapping..

  15. marie-lucie says

    JC, looking up “bulldog” on Wiki, of course the pictures and descriptions are of modern dogs but they are certainly not all the same colour. The original colour must have been quite dark.
    I am not a dog person, although I have sometimes looked after other people’s dogs. I was horrified by the chapter on “French bulldogs”: why would anyone deliberately create and propagate a breed that (in addition to looking very ungainly) has all kinds of health problems: the shortened nose causes breathing difficulties and very poor tolerance of heat, the legs are too short to really run and even make it difficult if not impossible for males to mate, and as for the females, Cesarean sections are required in 80% of them when giving birth! Eighty percent! I feel very sorry for those poor dogs. Apparently they are very affectionate, but I don’t think that justifies humans tampering with the dogs’ bodies to the extent that they are seriously dysfunctional.

  16. Birds, trees, and fish.
    3 worst categories of things to get involved with in any language. Hundreds of the bastards, they mutate over time, and nobody can really tell them apart. ‘We think in Ancient Greece oak used to be beech, or birch, larch, or belch,” etc. etc. Horrid. Then, when you try to translate them from one language to another…? Abominable.

  17. m-l, it’s true of a lot of dog breeds. Many dogs die young because breeders distort certain features of skin and bone; so alsatians (aka German shepherds) & St Bernards get hip dysplasia, for example. Dog breeding is an absolute racket.
    By the way, have you heard of maisons à pondalez? I was looking up medieval staircases today, and I found some pictures. Pondalez is ‘pont d’aller’. Apparently they’re in Brittany in a place called Morlaix.

  18. John Emerson says

    Many people prefer mutts of entirely uncertain origin because of the health questions.
    I think that it’s somewhat the same with horses.

  19. marie-lucie says

    AJP, maisons à pondalez: No, I had never heard of those, and I have never been to Morlaix. Pondalez is a “Bretonization” of the French phrase, as indicated by the final z.
    It looks like the houses did not have inside staircases, which is likely if they had a rural origin. Or, once the plan was adapted to city living, they were bigger and higher and perhaps did have an inside staircase but in an inconvenient place. The pondalez look awkward as far as staircases go, is that right? Perhaps the carpenters were not used to building wooden staircases and improvised as best they could.

  20. Not improvised, I think this is very fine work with an intricately carved newel post and some nice panelling. It’s quite hard to plan and make a spiral staircase, especially one as complicated as this is with its bridge connections. It’s a freestanding interior staircase, which is quite unusual for that time. Staircases during the renaissance were utilitarian – hence the spiral here, you just scurried upstairs – often they were enclosed in a stone tower. You can see they were utilitarian spaces, like lift shafts, if you look at Palladio buildings (contemporary with Shakespeare). The plan of the Villa Rotunda, has four staircases set into the poché between the round central space and large rooms that surround it. Now compare those with a later building like the 19C. Paris Opera, whose grand stair and entry sequence takes up nearly half the volume of the building’s public spaces.

  21. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I agree about the fine intricate carving, but I was talking about the strange general design. This one does not look like a spiral staircase but much “flatter” against the wall, and according to the description it is not indoors but outside, on a wall facing a garden. Or did I misunderstand?
    I know the grand staircase at the Paris Opera, I think it was designed as a public space in itself, as well as a means of access to the main floor. A few years ago I saw an exhibition of Opera costumes on the staircase, worn by mannequins (store mannequins, not people). From the bottom of the stairs you had a grand view of all these gorgeously dressed mannequins in various poses connected with the roles (especially the female ones). This grand view would not have been possible if the mannequins had been on the same horizontal plane. People went to the Opera to be seen as well as to see, and the grand staircase was perfect to allow ladies to display their elaborate dresses with extremely wide skirts, according to the fashions of the Second Empire.
    The Renaissance staircases enclosed in towers must have been a continuation of an earlier design. In medieval castles there are small circular towers enclosing narrow spiral staircases where there is rarely enough space for two persons to meet comfortably if one is going up and one down. This was a way of deterring potential attackers. The Renaissance staircases are wider but I think that the basic design principle must be the same.

  22. It says This staircase is recorded as having come from no 17 Grand’ rue, Morlaix (Brittany, France), where it occupied a central, enclosed hall, and linked the rooms at the street front to those at the back, facing a yard. (in England, that would mean a courtyards rather than a garden). Besides, I don’t think they would have built out of oak if it was going to be outdoors and it certainly wouldn’t have lasted that way until 1909.
    The Renaissance staircases enclosed in towers must have been a continuation of an earlier design.
    Yes, but the interesting thing to me is that they knew how to make a grand interior stair (look at Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library stair, which is Mannerist, took up most of a big room and was also designed about 1530) but it wasn’t for a house and it made a connection from an entry up to a sort of piano nobile rather than to an upper storey. They must have thought of stairs to upper floors as private functional spaces, almost like a modern fire stair or a lift and nothing like a Baroque residential stair, say.

  23. marie-lucie says

    AJP, you are an architect, I am not, so I believe you but the photo looks like it is taken outdoors. Where am I wrong?

  24. Trond Engen says

    marie-lucie: Where am I wrong?
    The staircase is at a museum today. The Victoria % Albert Museum in London. According to the text accompanying the pictures it was given by a certain Mr J. H. Fitzhenry, Esq. (and I don’t think I’d be too mistaken if I said in 1909).
    It looks like outdoours, but I guess it’s a large hall, maybe a built-over backyard between the wings. It’s not a very good location for the staircase, since it doesn’t show how it connects to the rooms in the building.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, Trond. I did not realize the staircase had been moved (to quite a distant location!).
    it doesn’t show how it connects to the rooms in the building.
    Yes, that’s one thing I found very puzzling. In the original location there should have been a door on each floor, giving access to and from the staircase.

  26. I expect the staircase is much easier to understand when you’re looking at it in the V&A, which after all is how museums worked before the internet came along.

  27. marie-lucie says

    AJP, this is a particularly fine example of medieval urban architecture with each floor jutting out above the one below, but I don’t see any staircase. Perhaps the pondalez is rather a gallery such as appears to be the function of the lowest floor?

  28. Yes, it is fine, isn’t it? I’ll have to take back what I said about wood being outdoors, that was rather silly of me. I love the carvings of the saints that are used as brackets. It all seems in extremely good nick without being over-restored, although it’s hard to know for sure from a photograph. I looked up the street on Google maps and despite the name it seems to be only about three metres wide. You wouldn’t see the stair, even if it’s still in place at No 9 (which it probably isn’t), because it’s located towards the rear of the interior and you can’t see inside. I thought the same as you, that the pondalez would have worked well as a gallery to walk around the open space, but I don’t know without seeing the stair in place. Maybe we should start a movement to return the staircase from the V&A to its rightful owner in Brittany.

  29. marie-lucie says

    AJP, the name “Grand Rue” (the medieval spelling) means “Main Street”, which this street was a few centuries ago, probably lined with shops. As to the rightful owner, presumably the man who sold the pontalez to the museum did not steal it – it would be hard to steal such a big and awkward structure! There are apparently other pontalez in Morlaix.
    I think that this architecture (without the pontalez but with staggered floors) was also common in England at the time, no? For a couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest the kings of England were also dukes of Normandy, so there was regular traffic and interchange between England and Normandy (and Brittany is next door to Normandy). Even after the two were officially separated, the interchange continued since the Plantagenet branch had claims to a large part of France until the end of the 100-year war.
    The visible vertical beams, used in what is (improperly) called “Tudor style”, are typical of Normandy as well as Southern England. The main difference is that the English houses are whitewashed and the beams black, while in France the walls are a natural beigeish clay colour and the beams are brown, so the French houses are less conspicuous.

  30. it would be hard to steal such a big and awkward structure!
    Tell that to Lord Elgin, although in fairness he was trying to protect the marbles (and I’m glad they’re in the British Museum).
    Two-storey-high open spaces in post-&-beam barns and public buildings were fairly common even before the Normans came to Britain. It’s not that difficult to achieve. This ‘Tudor’ style isn’t confined to France & England, though. You find it all over Germany and in eastern Europe (Czechia), there may even be something like it in Russia but I don’t know the details. I like the Breton wood colour for the posts and beams. I’m not sure why they cantilevered the upper floors over the already too narrow streets. Perhaps with no building regulations it was simply a way of increasing your floor area by extending over the property line on the street side. You wouldn’t get away with it nowadays unless your entire building fit inside your property.

  31. marie-lucie says

    I think that Lord Elgin had more resources at his disposal than the average British tourist or whoever bought the staircase and took it to England.
    I know that the so-called “Tudor style” is older than the Norman conquest, at least in its basic form, and I am not surprised that it should have been more widespread in Europe, but there must have been extensive cultural exchange and mutual influence between Normandy and England after the conquest, and this building style could have been part of it. In France it is much more widespread in Normandy than elsewhere, even for more recent buildings: for instance, 19th century houses lining the Seine estuary on the North side all have elements of this style.
    The cantilevered construction method used in urban houses has not been popular for a long time – for one thing it increased the likelihood of a fire spreading from one side of a street to another as the housetops were so close to each other. I have always thought that perhaps it was easier to build the upper walls on top of the horizontal beams if these beams extended below the lower wall, but I an neither an architect nor a builder.

  32. Russia has amazing wooden architecture. There’s a nice slide show here and some images here.

  33. Thanks. This is my favourite Russian one. Unfortunately it was deliberately burnt down, recently.
    I have always thought that perhaps it was easier to build the upper walls on top of the horizontal beams if these beams extended
    The very rough rule of thumb is that your cantilever can be up to 1/3 of the beam’s span. It’s no easier to build, and there are additional considerations of stability (eg wind loads) that then need to be dealt with.

  34. There’s a nice slide show here
    Can you imagine what they’d say in San Francisco if they saw those? They’d go nuts. Beautiful!

  35. AJP:

    facing a yard (in England, that would mean a courtyard rather than a garden)

    This use of garden in BrE gives AmE-speakers the impression that all Brits are horticulturalists, with neat rows of vegetables and flowers around their houses instead of plain old grass. Only much later do we realize that their front/back gardens are simply our front/back yards by another name — and etymological doublets at that, both of Germanic (and ultimate PIE) origin, with garden having taken a detour through French.

    I think it’s Oliver Sacks who, when he first comes to America, marvels at all the houses made of wood, and thinks of a wooden hotel in Norway (I think — at any rate there are wooden hotels there) in the middle of a forest where he stayed, in which every room has a stout rope attached at one end and long enough to reach the ground. But I cannot track this down.

  36. very attractive theory

    Devised by our own Piotr Gąsiorowski (I didn’t know who he was at the time) and written up here.

  37. David Marjanović says

    fishbase is the place to go to resolve fishy confusions..
    From its front page,
    “32400 Species, 299600 Common names”

    Now 34300 species, 326500 common names.

    garden having taken a detour through French

    Not through Norse?

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