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sphyrcena, fish, cestra, name and greek

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The generic term Sphyrcena means hammer, according to Jordan and Evermann (1896), and hence the barracuda is a hammer-fish —a total misnomer since it resembles nothing so little as a hammer, as was noted so long ago as 1554 by Salviani. This erroneous derivation and interpretation seem to have come about somewhat as follows: The name Sphyrcena originated with Aristotle, who, in his "Natural History," book pc, chapter 3, 610b, 5, simply names the fish. However, it will be shown further on that the more common name among the Greeks was cestra (a kind of light javelin invented and used during the Persian war) and also a goad or pointed stick. The word Sphyrcena apparently has its origin in the word sphyra, a hammer, but sphyrcena has no use or meaning other than as the name of the fish under consideration. This statement is based on the authority of Professors Gildersleeve and Miller of the Johns Hopkins University. The name cestra, however, seems to be a definite allusion to the shape of the fish and its pointed head.

Our next authority is Pliny. In his "Natural History," book mom, chapter 11, paragraph 54, he speaks of the fish "called sudis in Latin, and in Greek sphyrcena, names which indicate the shape of its snout." This sudis or sucks was a kind of javelin and also a kind of stake somewhat pointed and hardened in the fire. Furthermore the col loquial name used along the Mediterranean shores of Italy, France, and Spain to-day is spet or spetto. This term has already been used in this paper in speaking of the European fish, and refers to the elongated form and pointed snout.

The etymology of this name is very obscure. Sphyrcena = hammer fish is such a misnomer that I set to work to puzzle it out. Rondelet (1558) makes sphyrcena = ceatra, a sharpened stake, because of its pointed snout. Cuvier and Valenciennes (1829) cast strong doubt on the hammer-fish derivation and definitely state their belief that cestra (javelin or stake) is a synonym for sphyrcena, in allusion to its pointed snout. This led me back to Conrad Gesner's "Historia Animalium," ini, where was found a wealth of material which is summarized below. In this connection I wish to express my thanks to Professor C. W. E.

Miller, of the Johns Hopkins University, to whom I am indebted for translations of and some keenly critical comments upon the names used. These translations and comments have gone far towards clearing up the situation and for confirming the authors referred to in this para graph.

Before dealing with the data found in Gesner, it may be well to state that Aldrovandi (1613) is in full accord with Gesner, whom he quotes in large degree.

Gesner (1558) quotes the Greek poet and philosopher, Epicharmus, who flourished at Syracuse about 485 B. C., where he speaks of " ca irns and shining perches." Next he notes that Speusippus (about 407 B. C. to 339 B. C.), the nephew and disciple of Plato, likened the sphyrcena or cestra to the fish called in Latin aces (gar-pike). Then he finds that Athenteus, the Greek philosopher of Naucrates and Alex andria, Egypt, in his great work, " Deipnosophistie" (about 200 A. D.), writes that "Dorian says that what they call the cestra is the sphyrcena, and when Epicharmus called it the cestra he no longer said sphyrcena, although they are the same. And the Attic Greeks more often call the sphyrcena the cestra and very seldom use the name sphy rcena. " These quotations make it clear that the two names were used interchangeably but that cestra gradually came to be used almost exclusively for the fish once called sphyrcena.


sphyrcena, cestra (or kestra), and sudis were all used syn onymously for a certain slender sharp-headed fish recalling the idea of a javelin, a pointed stake, or the prow of a ship. Now there enters on the scene one Theodorus Gaza, a learned Greek scholar who was born about 1400 and who died about 79 years later. The Turks having captured his birth-place, Thessalonica in Macedonia, he was driven into Italy, where he was for many years professor of Greek at Ferrara. Later he moved to Rome and engaged in translating Greek works into Latin, among them Aristotle's "Natural history of animals" (1476). Gaza translated sphyrcena= kestra= audit by the Latin word malledus, hammer, and hammerfish it has remained to this day.

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