Naming: It’s What’s for Dinner

By 100m
August 19, 2015
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Filed under Naming

If you were to take a walk through a California orchard in 1920 or so, you might come across a tree bearing a large, egg-shaped fruit. The fruit is covered in tough, green skin. Plucked from the tree, it ripens, turning a duller green. You would know it as the alligator pear.

The avocado, as we call it today, was little more than a backwater oddity at the beginning of the 20th century, with paltry recognition among American consumers. The California Avocado Growers’ Exchange figured the fruit’s low popularity might be the result of its misleading and vaguely sinister name. In a concerted effort to market their product, the growers successfully lobbied retailers to sell the fruit as an avocado, at that time a more obscure word. “Avocado” itself is a corruption of the Aztec ahuacacuahatl, meaning “testicle tree.” Good thing the average American consumer isn’t proficient in Aztec.

Avocados aren’t the only foods that have been renamed to broaden their appeal or ditch unsavory associations. The kiwi was formerly known as the Chinese gooseberry. Canola oil is also the product of renaming. The name’s formulation (CANadian Oil, Low Acid) is clunky as all hell, but it was almost impossible not to improve on the original name: rapeseed oil.

The sea urchin was originally called the sea hedgehog, urchin itself (from the Latin: hericus) being an archaic name for the spiny mammal. If neither of these strikes you as particularly appetizing, consider the fact that Maine lobsterman fondly referred to them as whore’s eggs. It took the rise of sushi in America to transform the spiny invertebrates from obnoxious bycatch to prized delicacy. If you see them on a menu today, they’ll most likely appear under their Japanese name: uni.

Renaming foodstuffs, like renaming any brand, has drastic real-world consequences. Consider the Patagonian toothfish. Ugly and obscure, yet large and easily caught, it was the perfect candidate for a rebranding. To make it more appealing to Americans, fish wholesaler Lee Lantz coined the name “Chilean Sea Bass.” The resulting surge in the fish’s popularity made it a staple at chic restaurants, but it also devastated the Antarctic’s wild toothfish stock. Though international law restricts toothfishing, unscrupulous captains routinely flout these regulations.

Shady behavior in the fishing industry isn’t limited to fishing crews. Lax FDA nomenclature requirements for fish mean that vendors and restaurant owners can take extreme liberties in describing the catch of the day. If you order fried grouper, you could end up eating one of no fewer than sixty-four different species, from the graysby to the endangered goliath grouper. Pressure is mounting for the FDA to adopt a “one name, one fish” rule for naming, which would spice things up a lot on menus. After all, why eat a snapper when you could go for a wenchman, a pinjalo, or a crimson jobfish? Just don’t brag about filleting a dolphin.