“The means for ascertaining or confirming the etymologies of many scientific names are, perhaps, not available for all who might desire to ascertain them, and they are often wrongly analyzed.” — Theodore Gill (1896)
Naturalists have been naming animals with Latin or latinized epithets long before Linnaeus formalized zoological nomenclature with his Systema Naturae (10th ed.) in 1758. Following Linnaeus’ binomial (genus and species) system, over 10,000 genus-group names and over 57,700 species-group names have been proposed for fishes, with over 5,000 and 32,900 of these names, respectively, regarded as taxonomically valid today. But as Smithsonian zoologist Theodore Gill remarked back in 1896, the precise meanings of many scientific names are poorly known, and a reference for looking them up, at least among fishes, has long been unavailable. The ETYFish Project attempts to fill these voids.
What does that name mean? Our objectives are twofold: (1) to provide an English translation of a fish’s generic and specific names and (2) to explain how the name applies to the fish in question. Many references accomplish the first objective but fall short with the second. A case in point: Trinectes is a genus of coastal North and South American flatfishes whose name was coined by Rafinesque in 1832. Numerous books and websites will tell you that Trinectes is a combination of tri-, meaning three, and nektes, meaning swimmer. What most references fail to explain is what “three swimmer” actually means. (Does the fish swim in groups of three?) The answer lies in Rafinesque’s one-sentence description: “… it has only three fins, dorsal, anal and caudal.” Clearly, Rafinesque referred to the fact that the specimen he examined (now known as T. maculatus) lacked pectoral fins (a characteristic of the species) and, hence, had only three fins with which to swim. It’s this kind of analysis we believe makes The ETYFish Project a unique and useful reference for anyone who studies or writes about fishes or is curious about the combination of biology and language that zoological nomenclature represents.
In some cases, available etymological explanations are incorrect. Here is one example from among dozens. In the 1992 monograph The Characin Fishes of the Apure River Drainage, Venezuela, it is stated that the etymology of the specific name of Moenkhausia chrysargyrea (Günther 1864) is derived from the Latin words chrysos, meaning gold, and gyrus, meaning circle (p. 266). But the author is unable to explain how this translation of the name applies: “While there is no golden circle in preserved material, I suspect that the pale halo around the first humeral spot is probably golden in life.” Unfortunately, the translation is not correct. While chrysos does indeed mean gold, the second half of the name is from the Latin argyrea, meaning silvery. Günther, who did not explain the meaning of the name in his original description, did however describe the color of the fish as silvery with “golden reflexions.” Based on this evidence, chrysargyrea almost certainly means “golden-silver” and not “gold circle.” Misinterpretations such as this are common in the scientific and popular literature, and are often picked up and perpetuated in subsequent publications and databases (e.g., Fishbase).
Methodology Most modern-day descriptions of new fish taxa include a section on etymology in which the meaning of the name is unambiguously explained. Most descriptions from the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries do not. When the derivation and/or meaning of a name is not explained by the author(s), such as in the Trinectes and Moenkhausia examples cited above, we attempt to match our translation of the name — aided by Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words (rev. ed., 1956) — with an attribute mentioned in the original description. If that approach does not yield an obvious interpretation of the name, then we attempt to match the name with characters about the taxon as reported in subsequent publications. If we are not 100% certain about our interpretation, we include the adverb “probably,” “presumably” or “possibly” in our explanation. Despite our best efforts, many names have meanings that remain enigmatic (e.g., the temperate bass genus Morone) while others have names that reflect the whims of the author and apparently have no meaning at all. For example, Girard (1856) named several minnow genera after Native American words (e.g., Agosia, Dionda, Nocomis) simply because he liked the sound of them. If you know the meanings of any of these enigmatic names or can point us in new research directions, please contact us.
Taxonomic coverage and classification The ETYFish Project aims to explain the derivation and meaning of the names of every valid genus, subgenus, species and subspecies of fish and fish-like craniate (excluding fossils). This paraphyletic assemblage includes Myxini (hagfishes), Petromyzontida (lampreys), Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and chimaeras), Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes) and Sarcopterygii (coelacanths and lungfishes). Classification of higher-level taxa (subfamily and above) generally follows the 4th edition of Nelson’s Fishes of the World (2006) but is currently being revised to reflect the 5th edition (2016). We occasionally depart from either classification (e.g., the addition of the recent batoid order Rhinopristiformes) when we feel that current research presents a compelling case that we should. We provide name etymologies for all genus- and species-level taxa labeled as “valid” in the Catalog of Fishes; occasionally we add or subtract taxa when we feel that current research, or research not yet cited in the Catalog, justifies otherwise. We include subgenera and subspecies when our review of the literature indicates that these taxa remain in use by some ichthyologists. Gender is not included in our etymologies; please consult the Catalog of Fishes for information on whether a name is masculine or feminine.
A dynamic reference New taxa will be added as soon as we learn of their publications. Names will be removed if they are sunken into synonymy. Familial and generic classifications and specific placements within them will be adjusted as revisionary studies are published. Etymologies will be revised should new information become available. Revision information is included near the beginning of every section. Revisions marked by numbers (rev. 2.0, rev. 3.0, etc.) indicate when the content in that section has been expanded or updated (e.g., adding new taxa, correcting authorship data, revising an etymology). Revision numbers in which the digit after the decimal point is something other than a zero (e.g., rev. 2.1, rev. 3.2) indicate that typos and other minor errors have been corrected. If we overlooked a valid taxon or included one we shouldn’t have, or if see anything you believe is incorrect or could be improved upon, please let us know. You are our peer review.
When will it be finished? The ETYFish Project is not supported by any museum or educational institution. We work on it as a labor of love, as our schedules and budgets permit. Progress to date (Myxiniformes through Myctophiformes) represents 7+ years of research and data entry. That’s approximately 2200 names a year. Progress would be much slower — indeed, a project of this magnitude would be a practical impossibility — were it not for Google and Google Translate, the Catalog of Fishes, and the increasing digitization of old scientific journals and books via the Biodiversity Heritage Library and other electronic archives. We still need to “hit the stacks” for many references, but it’s amazing how much research can be done, and how quickly, without leaving our desks. Our work follows the sequence of fish classification adopted by most ichthyologists, so Lampriformes (Opahs, 35 names) is what we’re working on now. At the current rate, we expect to be finished in 2026.
Acknowledgments Our progress has been greatly facilitated by the time and labor of dozens of individuals who granted us library access, provided publications, translated non-English literature, and helped us in various ways to better understand etymologies.
- For interlibrary loans we thank P. J. Unmack, J. J. Hoover, R. Fricke, and the library staff at the American Museum of Natural History.
- For the herculean task of reviewing and proofreading all 16,800+ entries to date, we thank I. J. H. Isbrücker. (Any errors that remain, of course, are ours.)
- For generously and quickly sharing his library of papers on neotropical fishes, we thank T. O. Litz.
- For access to the “fish reprint room” at the California Academy of Sciences, we thank D. Catania.
- For access to the main and Division of Fishes libraries at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, we thank J. M. Clayton.
- For locating and/or scanning/copying especially hard-to-find publications, we thank M. Endruweit, L. Finley, R. Fricke, M. Geerts, P. Kukulski, C. T. Ly, D. Y. Mai, H. K. Mok, T. J. Near, A. Prokofiev, E. Schraml, and L. Wilson.
- For general advice, help and encouragement, we thank W. N. Eschmeyer, N. Evenhuis, G. S. Helfman, R. L. Mayden, J. E. McCosker, and L. M. Page.
And, finally, for translations we thank a long list of friends, colleagues and volunteers: C. Bedford (Japanese), J. Birindelli (Portuguese, Spanish), S. Binkley (French), H. W. Choy (Chinese), A. N. Economou (Greek), R. Fricke (Dutch, Latin), J. A. Giuttari (Latin, Italian), M. Hoang (Vietnamese), T. Johnson (Thai), C. T. Ly (Vietnamese), D. Y. Mai (Vietnamese), M. T. Martin (Japanese), P. R. Møller (Danish), J. Nelson (Spanish), H. H. Ng (Chinese), S. V. Ngo (Vietnamese), A. Porcella (Spanish), A. Prokofiev (Russian, Bulgarian), M. Ravinet (Japanese), E. Schraml (German, Dutch), L. Shulov (Russian), P. Simonović (Serbo-Croation), H. Song (Japanese), Y. Vavulitsky (Russian), E. Wieser (Japanese), N. Wu (Chinese), and K. Yoshida (Japanese).