I first learned about fishy name changes from my Aunt Edythe.
She was a very proper Bostonian with lots of experience and a haughty manner. She was well traveled, knew about art and antiquities, and had strict rules for how much water one could use when washing dishes at her house. I found out about that last item when I inadvertently left the tap running while scrubbing a dish. I learned quickly that one should conserve water by filling the sink with soapy water. Suitably chastised, I followed her directions, but then rarely volunteered to do the dishes at her house after that – an important lesson for my own parenting years.
One day I was grocery shopping with Aunt Edy. She looked at the case of fresh fish and derisively pointed to one fish with a perfectly reasonable name – monkfish, I think.
“In my day” she said, the fish had a different, less appetizing name. She went on to point out that the fish wasn’t considered edible in her day and that no self-respecting fish merchant would have sold it. Ever since then, I have been fascinated by fish – or as I call them – fishy name changes.
In some instances, an unappetizing name was all that stood in the way of consumer acceptance. Switching to a more pleasant moniker was all that was necessary to turn the species into a marketable one.
In other cases, the name change was part of a more complete make-over. A fish that looks scary or unappealing finds its way into stores, not just with a new name, but also with a new appearance. Want to know how that happens? Filets hide the whole fishes more unattractive physical characteristics. In fact, I now use (sustainable) Chilean sea bass instead of cod in my poached fish and fish with lemon caper sauce.
But in one case, the motivation for the change was the opposite; the “old” name was too sweet, making people blanch at the prospect of “eating Bambi.” Can you find that last one?
Fishy Name Changes – Old and New Names for Fish
- Stumpknocker became Spotted Sunfish
- Slimehead became Orange Roughy
- Goosefish became Monkfish
- Amberjack became Rock Salmon
- Whore’s Egg became Sea Urchin
- Mudbugs became Crawfish
- Pollock became Colin
- Hog Fish became King Mackerel
- Dolphinfish (unrelated to dolphins) became Mahi Mahi or Dorado
- Witchfish became Torbay Sole
- Pilchard became Cornish Sardine
- Patagonian Toothfish became Chilean Sea Bass
- Asian Carp became Silverfin or Kentucky Tuna
- Gizzard Fish became Lake Whitefish
- Dog Fish became Cape Shark
- Red Drum or Rat Red became Redfish
And just for fun (trivia)
Did you know that during the Colonial era, lobster was no delicacy? Rather, it was so plentiful that Native Americans used it as fertilizer and the colonists fed it to children, prisoners and indentured servants. In Massachusetts, some indentured servants became so tired of it that they put in their work contracts that their master-provided food could not include lobster more than three times a week.
Fishy name changes are just about how fish become more acceptable. For a more in-depth look at seafood and how to prepare fish, check out this online course.