A fish named Unknown

Languagehat:

I thought “sheefish” might be a typo (the New Yorker not being what it used to be), but no, there it was in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “sheefish [shee (prob. native name in Alaska or northwest Canada) + fish]: inconnu.” The vague etymology was frustrating (it’s not in the AHD, which would have had a better one, and the OED won’t get around to redoing the S’s for years), but “inconnu” took me aback—that’s the name of a fish? Sure enough, the OED has “A game fish, Stenodus leucichthys, belonging to the family Salmonidæ and found in Alaska and north-west Canada,” with citations going back two centuries. And the etymology? “French, unknown.” Which is baffling at first glance, but of course what they mean is that inconnu is a French word meaning ‘unknown.’ And why is a fish called “unknown”? Apparently it’s unknown.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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