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Still in the fishbowl (2): ‘Mackerel’

By Anatoly Liberman


Not that I can say anything quotable on the subject of the mackerel, but people keep writing about it and the attempts to understand how this fish got its name are so interesting that the story may be worth telling. Only one thing seems certain. Mackerel first appeared in a West-European text, in the French form makerels (plural) about 1140 (which means that it was known much earlier), and no one doubts that the English borrowed their word from Old or Anglo-French. From France it spread to other lands, sometimes through an intermediary. The question is why the French called the mackerel this.

Stream of mackerel 2008. Photo by Ed Bierman. Creative Commons License.

The fish has been known forever. The Greeks called it skombros and the Romans scomber, whence the scientific name Scomber scomber, sounding like a parody of Nabokov’s parody. (Nabokov, in introducing Humbert Humbert, was naturally aware of the allusion to this type of terminology.) The origin of the Greek word is unknown. The once popular idea that it means “red” has been abandoned long since, but Russian skumbriia and a few of its “relatives” remind us of the ancient word. Whoever coined mackerel was not influenced by the Mediterranean tradition.

The oldest suggestion about the word’s origin points to Latin macula “spot,” a noun familiar to English speakers from (im)maculate. Macula also meant “mesh of a net”; from this sense, via Old French, we have mail “armor.” The fish in question is indeed spotted and very probably that’s all there is to say about its name, but scholars tend to walk devious ways. Modern French has two words spelled and pronounced alike: maquereau “mackerel” and maquereau “pimp” or “matchmaker,” or (euphemistically) “broker.” In the middle of the nineteenth century, Carl A. F. Mahn advanced a bold hypothesis that happened to have a long life. However, before summarizing it, some information should be given about Mahn, an etymologist whose name is inextricably connected with that of Noah Webster.

The first edition of Webster’s dictionary appeared in 1828. Although its publication provoked fierce attacks, the book withstood them and became deservedly famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, it contained many absurd etymologies, which as time went on became a real embarrassment. New philology arose in Germany, but both England and the United States lagged sadly behind. Decades passed before people like Henry Sweet and William Dwight Whitney could speak like equals with their German peers and gain their recognition. Skeat belonged to the same generation. When in the eighteen-sixties the decision was made to overhaul Webster’s derivations, no one in the English speaking world could be entrusted with this task. Even Germany lacked a first-rate expert in the history of English.

Twenty years later the situation became different, but the publishers did not want to wait. The choice fell on Mahn (1802-1887), a German scholar who specialized in Romance historical linguistics and made his living as a foreign language teacher in Berlin. In retrospect, his readiness to undertake such a task looks like absolute madness. Yet he did the work so well that the 1864 edition of Webster’s dictionary is usually referred to as Webster-Mahn. Even Skeat, who expressed unconcealed disdain for his contemporaries’ dabbling in etymology, treated Mahn with a modicum of respect and sometimes agreed with him. Despite Mahn’s great achievement, he is almost forgotten. The two obituaries I have read list his publications and say almost nothing about his life. The same holds for the entries in several German dictionaries of biography. If some of our readers happen to know more about him, references will be most welcome. I cannot even say whether he went to America to work on etymologies or corresponded with his colleagues by mail. He certainly deserves greater visibility.

Long before his American adventure, Mahn offered a new etymology of mackerel; reproduced in the dictionary, it became widely known. He mentioned the popular tradition in France that the mackerel in spring follows the female shads, which are called vierges (or maids) and leads them to their mates. Thus, maquereau “mackerel” and maquereau “matchmaker; broker; pimp” turned out to be the same word. Skeat, in the first edition of his etymological dictionary, “made bold to reject” this derivation because “it is clear,” as he said, “that the story arose out of the coincidence of the name, and that the name was not derived from the story.” He was probably right, except that nothing is “clear” here.

If the superstition is old, it could have given rise to the fish name, but its age is beyond reconstruction. The fact that it was first recorded in the nineteenth century does not disprove its antiquity; not everything we call folklore has attested medieval roots. It is rather the fanciful nature of the story that makes it almost impossible to believe. In the post on herring, I referred to the linguist who believes that herring meant the sun with rays all around its “face.” He also has full trust in the brokerage hypothesis. Maquereau “pimp” goes back to Dutch makelaar or its Low (that is, northern) German cognate, literally “maker.” Some older etymologists pointed out that in Roman comedies matchmakers usually wore motley clothes, a circumstance that could, as they thought, bring forth an association between the fish with its spots and the actor’s apparel.

Then there are two French homonyms: mâcher “chew” and mâcher “crush, bruise,” considered to be unrelated. Those who trace French maquereau to mâcher “bruise” come to the same conclusion as those who begin with Latin macula. Allegedly, the spots (blotches) on the fish look like bruises. Given macula, we hardly need a competitor (mâcher) to clinch the etymology. (This is, of course, not a decisive argument, for Occam’s razor is not always a dependable tool in etymology, whether we are dealing with fish or any other subject.) Also, this verb surfaced considerably later than the fish name in Old French, while in the south of France (where it turned up at an earlier date,) the fish isn’t called maquereau. In Provence, its name was vairat. However, as with folklore, dates give an imperfect idea of when a word appeared in the language. Fish names had low frequency in old texts (glosses, treatises on animals, and recipes). For example, from the Old English period only twenty-five fish names have come down to us. If an exhaustive encyclopedia of ichthyology from the Middle Ages had existed, it would probably have been written in Latin.

Die Forelle by Franz Schubert, 1821. Source: Library of Congress.
Thus, as with herring, no final results reward our search, though once again we can say that certain suggestions are more realistic than the others. The French homonyms — maquereau “match maker” and maquereau “mackerel” — seem to be different words. Since they are indistinguishable in pronunciation, a legend must have arisen that this fish performs certain matrimonial services. Belief in such a strange phenomenon could result in the coinage of the fish name, but it most likely did not. Roman actors fade out of the picture along with brokering mackerels. With regard to spots, Latin macula (or simply maca) seems to be a more plausible source of Old French makerel than mâcher “bruise.” Vairat, mentioned above, apparently refers to the mackerel’s “variegated” appearance. Even those who don’t know German may have heard the German word Forelle “trout” from Schubert’s song. Forelle, as its etymology shows, also meant “spotted.” Examples of “spotted” fish abound. In a recent paper, William Sayers didn’t reject the origin of mackerel from a word for “spot” but suggested a Basque source of the Old French word. This is of course possible. As usual in such cases, solid evidence is wanting.

Unlike -ing in herring, -rel in mackerel poses no problems. It is a diminutive or pejorative suffix, the same that occurs in pickerel (literally “little pike”), petrel (possibly from Peter), cockerel, mongrel, scoundrel, wastrel, and unexpectedly, doggerel, among others.

Fish are hard to catch. The origin of their names is often even more evasive. The result depends entirely on one’s fishing luck.

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Yewtree

    Vair, in heraldry, refers to a variegated pattern: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vair

  2. John Cowan

    If someone asked you for such a quotation, you could reply “Holy mackerel!”

  3. Alice

    Just a quick note that Steve Miller caught an error in the post: “When in the nineteen-sixties the decision was made to overhaul Webster’s derivations, …”

    Eighteen-sixties is correct.

    We’ve amended the piece accordingly.

    — Blog Editor Alice

  4. Brianne Hughes

    Hello! Thank you for writing this blog. I love it.

    I’ve been combing through old word lists this summer for verb-noun compounds in English, (Uhrstrom 1918, Teall 1892, Grose 1811), and I recently came across ‘buttwoman.’ I giggled, then I found out on oed.com that ‘butt’ is a word for certain types of fish, and that it shows up in ‘halibut’, its components perhaps meaning ‘holy’ and ‘butt’ (fish). More giggles. I don’t want to cause you to grow gills with all of these fishy dives, but I’d like to know if you agree with the OED’s ‘holy’ idea. Maybe its easier to nail down because it’s associated with religion, or maybe harder to tell if ‘holy’ came as a folk etymology after its religious initiation.

    Talking about ‘halibut’ could be a good way to show civilians that etymology is not dry and serious. At least not for me.

  5. [...] tradition of eating halibut on holy days. I’ve commented on Anatoly Liberman’s second excellent fishy post about this strange series of events.  I hope he responds. I hope he never reads it. I hope he [...]

  6. [...] similar case is the fish name bass. (I am very happy to return to the fish bowl.) All its cognates have r in the middle: Dutch baars, German Barsch, and so forth. The word is [...]

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