Wood on Words: Columnist Barry Wood on sea creature terms.
Does she still sell seashells down by the seashore? And if so, how many clams is she charging these days?
In addition to slang for a dollar, “clam” is also an informal term for a person who is reluctant to speak, more often encountered in the verb phrase “clam up.”
Any large social gathering may be called a “clambake,” especially a clamorous one.
Interestingly, the adjective “clammy” for “unpleasantly moist, cold and sticky” appears to have evolved from a different root, the Old English for “mud” or “clay.” Of course, the actual creature inside a clamshell certainly could be called clammy.
In the same vein, the adjective “crabby” for “ill-tempered” is as much about sour fruit as it is cranky crustaceans. In fact, it’s with the entry for “crab apple” that Webster’s New World lists a “crab” as “a person who has a sour temper or is always complaining.” You see, it’s about sourness, not living in a shell or walking sideways or even wielding pincers.
The animal and the fruit both contribute to “crabbed,” which can mean “peevish, morose, cross”; “hard to understand because intricate or complicated”; or “hard to read or make out because cramped or irregular.”
And “crab grass” was so named because someone thought it resembled the creature. I do know that trying to extract the stuff from your lawn can make you crabby.
For an animal with an extremely tough shell, look no further than a wharf or the bottom of a ship. That would be the “barnacle,” so tenacious that we also use its name for any other thing or person “hard to get rid of.”
Less complimentary is to refer to someone as a “jellyfish.” This informal use for “a weak-willed person” is a cheap shot for the animal, which can’t help being spineless. Most people, on the other hand, have a choice about showing some backbone now and then.
The sea is also home to the largest of the mammals, the whale. We allude to that size in the informal expression “a whale of a” for “an exceptionally large, fine, etc., example of” something.
At the other end of the scale, “shrimp” is used informally for “a small or insignificant person” — not a very tasteful thing to say, even with cocktail sauce.
The origin of “shark” is a bit of a mystery, which seems appropriate. The best guess is a German word for “scoundrel, rogue.” When applied to humans, “shark” means “a person who victimizes others, as by swindling or cheating,” which is a bit of an insult for the fish, whose methods and motives are fairly straightforward.
“Shark” is also slang for “a person with great ability in a given activity,” an instance in which the slang term is more complimentary than the regular one.
Finally, a note about the flounder. The verb, which is about ungraceful attempts to move or “to speak or act in an awkward, confused manner,” is probably a combination of “founder” and “blunder.”
In other words, it’s not about the fish. The fish “flounder” traces back to an Indo-European base for “flat,” which it most definitely is.
So does a flounder flounder? I wouldn’t bet all my clams on it.
Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.