A Brief History
On April 1, 2016, we published an article using made up “scientific” names of fish in a pathetic effort to be funny. (This author, according to most people, is not funny. I beg to differ…) Today, we take a look at the common name of some real life fish in fresh and salt water. Feel free to nominate others that you believe should be on such a list. Sometimes people butcher the names of fish and create their own stupid/funny names, a fact I learned working part-time at an aquarium store. Examples are “African American Cichlids” when the customer means “African Cichlids,” a popular and large family of fish often found in aquariums. One guy called Koi “Kroa.” Many customers referred to the Siamese Fighting Fish, Betta splendens, as “Beta” (as in Bay-tuh) instead of the proper pronunciation, “Bett-uh.” We had to change the name of the Niger Triggerfish to the “Black Triggerfish” because of morons. Do you speak Plecostomus? Of courserous!
These smallish fish live on the sea floor in little caves or shells or even man-made objects to provide them a safe little house. They jealously defend their territory against others of their kind, using their enormously wide gaping mouths to intimidate and fight the interlopers. They can be found off the West Coast of the United States. The Jawfish is even smaller and lives in a similar manner, also fighting for territory with its unusually large mouth. I believe this was also the common name of my 6th grade teacher…
Patagonian Tooth Fish.
Would you still love the delicious Chilean Sea Bass at your favorite seafood joint if they called it by its original name? Changing the name of fish to make them sell better is a common practice. After all, only the scientific name is largely recognized, and the common name can be whatever anyone wants to call them. We can thank Lee Lantz for coming up with the new name in 1977. These fish are so tasty they have become a threatened species.
If you have never heard of these goofy looking fish, you are probably the victim of the old retail switcheroo, restaurants and fish mongers selling this fish as “Orange Roughy,” a much more appetizing name!
An American fish of the Mississippi drainage, they are an ancient relic of the prehistoric past and have a skeleton of cartilage instead of bone, similar to sharks and sturgeons. The name Paddlefish reflects their rostrum, a large paddle-like protuberance coming from their snout ending in a rounded tip. Their scientific name is the funny part, Polyodon spathula, a nod to the spatula-like nose gear. Another variety in China is called “Elephant Fish” or “Chinese Swordfish.” They are almost identical to the fossils of their type from 125 million years ago. They have huge mouths that they open and swim around to take in plankton in a similar fashion to baleen whales and Whale Sharks. A Chinese specimen was a massive 23 feet long and a few thousand pounds, but the American variety usually gets to about 5 or 6 feet and less than 200 pounds. The record American specimen was over 7 feet long. The rostrum is usually about a fourth of the length of the body of the fish and is equipped with electrical receptors believed to help the fish find food in murky waters.
This little guy (22 inches long) lives in the open ocean where food is not easy to come by. It has developed a very round mouth equipped with razor like teeth and the tactic of taking a bite out of large fish such as tuna that go zipping by. The Cookiecutter Shark could not hope to catch such fast swimmers, so he just gets a single bite as the large fish passes, leaving an almost perfectly round wound a couple or few inches in diameter, hence the name. These little sneaks have also been known to take a round plug out of other sea creatures large and small, including human divers and sea cables. The US Navy once was baffled by finding rubber covered sonar domes on their submarines with such holes cut in them and wondered if the Soviets had developed a new weapon! No, it was just Cookiecutter Sharks eating the wrong food.
Why would people give such a weird name to a shark? You have to see this guy to believe they exist. They have a long protruding snout coming out of their “forehead” and a highly extendable mouth that gives this shark a terrifying appearance. Seldom seen, they live in deep water off Japan and slowly swim up to their prey and then in a lightning fashion shoot their jaws forward to grab the meal instead of trying to catch their prey by swimming fast. (The 10 to 13 foot long sharks do not swim fast.) Goblin Sharks are one of the primitive species of sharks believed to have been unchanged for millions of years. Did we mention they have pink skin? Weird fish, weird name. It fits.
I used to catch these ugly little guys in North Carolina, and they have an incredible bite force. They are squat and ugly, giving them the “Toadfish” part of their name. The “Oyster” part of their name comes from their habit of munching on various crustaceans and mollusks. Usually around a foot long, they reach a maximum of about 17 inches. Bottom feeders, they have fins they use like legs. They also make a “foghorn” croaking sound and sport a venomous spine on their backs.
A small Wrasse that reaches up to a bit more than a foot in length, they start life as females and somehow transition into males as they get older. It is found from the Carolinas to the Caribbean in depths up to about 50 feet. Apparently, they are slippery…
Incredibly, this is a quite apropos name for this deep sea dweller. It looks so bizarre it had a role in Men in Black, the 1997 movie about aliens. Without alteration, the Blob Fish looks just like we would expect aliens to look. The fish looks like and its name sounds like the subject of a 1950’s science fiction movie. This author has been accused of looking just like one…
When you are playing “State Fish Trivia” with your family because of being stuck at home during a pandemic (ie., coronavirus) or a massive snowstorm, or if you are stuck in a nuclear fallout shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear war, you can blow away your competition by rattling off the name of the State Fish of Hawaii! (The official name of our 50th state is indeed “Hawaii,” although people in the island chain now write it “Hawai’i.) The name of this fish for non-Hawaiians is “Reef Triggerfish.”
Why not call it the “Hooray?” Why not “Yippee?” Why is there no exclamation point after the name? This sleek game fish is also fine on the table and is a fairly attractive fellow to boot. Long and lean, this member of the Mackerel and Tuna family of fish gets up to just over 8 feet long and close to 200 pounds. It looks fast, and it is, swimming up to 60 miles per hour! Called “Ono” in Hawaii and by the shortened name “Hoo” in the Eastern United States, the name it goes by in Japan is “Kamasu-sawara,” and Central Americans call this tasty swimmer “Peto.” Although by no means a definitive answer, the name may have come from European visitors to Hawaii that called the island of Oahu “Wahoo” and bestowed the “name” of the island on a fish they found there. Or maybe because of the yelp of joy by sports fishermen that hooked one. If you know, let us know, too.
This guy looks nothing like a goose. Some varieties are known as “Monkfish” or even “Frogfish” or “Sea Devils.” The last 2 names kind of make sense, as the wide mouth of these flat shaped bottom dwelling members of the Anglerfish family are full of razor sharp teeth, and the squat shape of the fish is kind frog like. The Goosefish and Monkfish types are quite flat, quite ugly, and lay on the bottom while dangling their own built-in fishing lure in front of their incredibly wide crescent shaped mouth, positively bristling with sharp and sizeable teeth. They look like they should have been called the “Mouthfish.” Although living on the bottom, they are sometimes found in water shallow enough to add diving birds to their menu, prey such as Sea Gulls, Cormorants, Grebes, Widgeons, Scoters, and Loons among others. But not Geese! At least we have a possible answer for how the Monkfish got its name. Apparently some people think they look like a monk with a cowl pulled over their heads. (This idea is a stretch to say the least…) If you know a better explanation for how the Goosefish got its name, share that information with us. Thanks. Yet another relative is the Coffinfish, and of course, yet even another is the Psychedelia!
Not one, but 2 water dwellers get this rather provocative name! One, also known as “The Chinese Penis Fish” and its relative the “Innkeeper Worm” (or just plain “Penis Fish”) of the American West Coast is not really a fish, but an annelid worm that lives in the ocean. You can guess how it got its name. The actual fish that is sometimes called the “Penis Fish” is a South American nightmare fish, a little skinny fish that for some reason likes to swim into the exposed urethra of men that are swimming nude or urinating in waters infested by these terrors. Once up the urethra, the fish have to be removed surgically. Ouch! In Amazonian South America, the “Penis Fish” is known as the Candiru, Toothpick Fish or Vampire Fish. They are members of the catfish family.
Best of the Rest.
Or should we call this part, “Worst of the Rest?” Blowfish, Puffer, Porcupine Fish, Sea Robin, Scrod, Bloater, Lung Fish, Crappie, Carpsucker, Chub, Hogsucker, Lawyer, Growler (Largemouth Bass), Grunt, Mooneye, Smelt (“He who smelt it, dealt it…”), Grouper, Jewfish, Gulper, Stargazer, Sheepshead, Flounder, Obese Dragonfish (Hey, it’s big-boned…), Squirrelfish, Goatfish, Barreleye, Parrotfish, Spiny Lumpsucker, Tasseled Wobbegong, Batfish, Leafy Seadragon, Croaker, and the Hagfish. There is even a fish called the Humanfish, alternately called the Olm or Proteus. Why not call it Michael Phelps? Okay, one more: the Monkeyface Prickleback, an eel that lives off the West Coast of the US.
Although not a fish, per se, we have to include the Dumbo Octopus, a kind of cute looking mollusk that has big flaps that look like elephant ears. Or the Fried Egg Jellyfish…
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite fish name? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Schultz, Ken. Ken Schultz’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fish. Wiley, 2003.
Schultz, Ken. Ken Schultz’s Field Guide to Saltwater Fish. Wiley, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Psychrolutes phrictus, is in the public domain, because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties.