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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