By Anatoly Liberman
Several people pointed out to me that I cannot distinguish a shrimp from a prawn, and I am afraid they are right. The picture copied for the shrimp post had the title “Shrimp cocktail,” but the shrimp there are too big and are really prawns. In any case, I decided to atone for my mistake and write a post on the etymology of prawn. This plan was hard to realize, because the origin of prawn is really, that is, hopelessly unknown: the word exists, but no one can say where it has come from. It is strange that more or less the same holds for shrimp and shark, though both are less opaque. There must have been some system behind calling those sea creatures. The fishermen who coined such names had a reason to call a shrimp a shrimp and a prawn a prawn.
Despite the obscurity that enshrouds prawn, it may be useful to sum up what people thought about its origin, even though the final solution is out of reach (and how many solutions in etymology can be called final?). Characteristically, the earliest English etymologists did not include prawn in their dictionaries. Even the great Franciscus Junius, who mentioned it, could not offer any cognate except (most hesitatingly) Greek perna “ham.” For many years no hypotheses appeared in the successive editions of Webster’s dictionary (Noah Webster was constantly on the lookout for Hebrew cognates, but evidently, no look-alikes turned up). Later “Of unknown origin” was added to the entry. And yet the word surfaced in the fifteenth century, in the full light of history. The attested forms are preyne, prane, pran, prawne, and, finally, prawn. If the word has an Old English antecedent (a suggestion along these lines has been made by an excellent scholar), it may have been prægn (with æ pronounced like a in Modern Engl. pram and g having the value of Modern Engl. y) or pragn. But no such form has been recorded, and even if it existed, we would have no clue to its origin.
Skeat had an idea of which he was never too fond. The Century Dictionary followed Skeat, and here is the relevant entry in full, with the abbreviations expanded: “…perhaps transposed from an unrecorded Old French parne, perne, a prawn (?), = Spanish perna, a flat shell-fish, = Old Italian perna, ”a nacre or narre-fish” (Florio), cf. diminutive parnochie, pl. “shrimps or prawne, fishes” (Florio), from Latin perno, a sea-mussel, so called from its shape, from perna (Old French perne), ham.” In the earlier editions of his dictionary Skeat compared the putative Romance etymon of prawn with the root of barnacle and traced Latin perna to Greek perna “a ham,” the word that caught Junius’s fancy. Later he expunged the comparison with barnacle. John Florio was the author of an early seventeenth-century dictionary of Italian and English.
The first edition of the OED had harsh words for Skeat’s tentative etymology (here and in the later quotation I have also expanded the abbreviations): “A suggested connexion with Latin perna, French perne ham, a ham-shaped shell-fish, a pinna, founded upon a blundered entry in Florio ‘parnocchie Shrimps or Prawne fishes’, (parnocchia (pl. -ie), being a variant of ‘pernocchia, a Nakre or Nacre (mispr. Narre-fish’) is opposed at once to the sense and the phonology.” Perhaps the Middle English word indeed has nothing to do with the words Florio listed, but parnochie is not so strongly opposed to prawn as regards “the sense and the phonology” that the comparison should be rejected out of hand.
In the last full edition of his dictionary, Skeat reproduced the early text of his entry but added British dialectal prankle “prawn” (Isle of Wight): “This suggests a connexion between prawn and prance; with a possible allusion to its bright appearance or quick movements. Cf. Jutland pranni ‘to strut,’ prannies ‘a showy person’.” The idea of a prancing, showy prawn arouses little enthusiasm. Yet in a different form it occurred to Eduard Mueller, Skeat’s predecessor, who found prankle in Peter Levens’s Manipulus vocabulorum, a 1570 English rhyming dictionary (it has been reprinted twice since that time). It seems that Skeat soon felt disillusioned with the prankle connection, because in the concise version of the last edition he said only: “Hardly (through a lost Anglo-French form) from Latin perna, a sea-mussel); cf. Middle Italian parnochhie, ‘a fish called shrimps or praunes;’ Florio.” Translated into plain English, this entry reads: “Origin unknown.” I suggest that two crumbs should be picked up from the debris: Middle Italian parnocchie “shrimp” (plural) and British dialectal prankle “prawn.” It won’t hurt to store up those forms for future reference.
Three more hypotheses should be mentioned for completeness’ sake. Hensleigh Wedgwood, at one time the main English etymologist, now almost forgotten, cited Old Engl. preon “bodkin”, whose cognates in other Germanic languages mean “awl; pin, peg” and which, in a roundabout way, may be related to the verb preen. “From the formidable spur with which the head is armed?” Ferdinand Holthausen, a distinguished German scholar, wrote countless articles about the origin of English words. Some of his conjectures found reflection in his etymological dictionary, seldom consulted outside Germany and almost devoid of value because of its extreme brevity. As early as 1904, he proposed to derive prawn from Old French preon (= Italian predone), from Latin (praedo “robber”; its accusative is praedonem, cf. Engl. predator). He thought that some prawns were parasites; hence robbers. I am not aware of any discussion of this idea.
Curiously, both Wedgwood and Holthausen traced prawn to preon, but one cited an Old English and the other an Old French form. Preon is not far removed from prægen, mentioned above. Finally, we should turn to Charles MacKay, the author of a dictionary in which he attempted (and failed) to trace numerous English words to Irish Gaelic. But his remark on prawn is interesting. He reasoned that since shrimp means “tiny thing,” perhaps prawn does too, and cited Gaelic pronn “small, trifling.” Pronn and prawn may be related, but, if they are, we are facing the dilemma familiar to us from the history of shrimp, namely, which sense is primary “small thing” or “small marine animal”? It would shed some light on the history of prawn if in our search for the etymology we stopped looking for words describing or naming shrimp, sea mussels, and so forth and concentrated on the sense “small.” But no useful word suggests itself, so that perhaps pronn is the figurative sense of prawn, a noun borrowed from English.
Although it is usually said that prawn has no cognates or even look-alikes, this is not quite true. Parnocchie and prankle are close enough. There are also some Frisian words cited by Gerhard E.H. Meier: purr, porr with their phonetic variants (they would have -n in the plural), and poorn “crab.” Since the Frisian words have no known etymology, we will not be closer to our goal if we decided that English borrowed prawn from Frisian. It looks as though for at least six hundred years seamen have used the word pran- ~ parn- denoting “prawn.” Its origin remains unknown, but it hardly goes back to Old English or Old French. We may be dealing with an obscure Mediterranean term, ultimately traceable to some substrate language of that area.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”