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TWTS: You can tuna fish, but you may not need the "fish"

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It’s the time of year when many of us run to the store to load up on deeply discounted chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps. However, here at That’s What They Say, we find ourselves thinking about tuna fish, thanks to a fun question from our listener Ryan Rubin:

“’Tuna' is a fish, so it seems like saying ‘chicken bird.’ But we also have ‘tuna salad,’ which I think of as the same as ‘tuna fish’…is there a distinction between ‘tuna fish’ and ‘tuna salad?’”

Honestly, it really just depends on who you ask. For some folks, it comes down to whether mayonnaise is present. For others, it’s whether the source of origin was a can. More complicated systems of classification surely exist, but again, it depends on who you ask.

 The word “tuna” goes back to the Spanish word “atún.” From there, it can be traced back to Latin and Greek. According to Merriam Webster, “tuna” can refer to “any of various large vigorous scombroid fishes that are usually dark above and silvery below and include many that are valued as food or sport fishes.”

This includes Albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, etc., all of which may be followed by “fish”

 There are plenty of other “fish” compounds out there, including swordfish, lionfish, and sunfish. These names depend on “fish” though – lose it, and suddenly you’re talking about swords, lions, and the sun.

 When it comes to tuna though, it’s arguable that “fish” isn’t necessary. It’s worth noting though that there’s a meaning of “tuna” that refers to a prickly pear cactus. As Kevin McCarthy, a linguist at the University of Florida, has pointed out, it’s possible that “tuna fish” originates to distinguish the tuna fish from the tuna cactus.  

 The compound “tuna fish” first showed up in the early 20th century, around the same time canned tuna emerged. Some dictionaries make the distinction that “tuna fish” and “tuna” can both refer to the tuna that comes in a can, but “tuna” also refers to the live fish and the fish filet.

 For more tuna talk, list to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.