Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 13

March 28 - April 3, 2002

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The Grammar of Gender

A ship is always referred to as ‘she’ because it costs so much to keep her in paint and powder.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz in 1940, as quoted by James W. Cheevers,
curator of the Naval Academy Museum

Ye Gods, ’tis time to draw the line. We’re taking this gender-neutral, political and social correctness thing too far. It’s bad enough when sports teams can’t be called Indians, Warriors and such. Worse when the gender for hurricanes is ordered balanced between male and female monikers.

But impossible to swallow is that ships should no longer be referred to as she. Imagine using it when referring to the Mayflower; Santa Maria; John Paul Jones’ Ranger; the Arizona still beneath the surface with her crew at Pearl Harbor, the mighty Lexington; the Missouri on whose decks World War II came to an end; the Monitor, Merrimack or Alabama — even the tub you fish from. Is nothing sacred?

In the event you missed it, Lloyd’s List — a prominent and 266-year-old London-based shipping industry daily newspaper — announced last week it was time to catch up with the rest of the world and “refer to ships as neuter.” So, I assume, even the Queen Mary will now be referred to as it. But not by the lips of this old Navy man.

He’s, She’s and Its
Why scuttle tradition? From the time the first boat rode the waves, anything on the water has been a she. Back then, all sailors were men, and the farther and longer they sailed from shore, the more lonely were the crews. When one is lonely, thoughts fittingly turn to mothers, wives and sweethearts.

So it was only natural that their ships came to be referred to as she and her. Nothing demeaning; it was out of respect, security, love and loneliness. Early sailors at sea for months on end also remembered gender with female figures carved from wood on their bows and, not infrequently, feminine names for their ships.

Some sailors would as soon refer to the real women in their lives as it as they would their ship. In the Bluejacket’s Manual, the staid, no-nonsense bible of the navy, a ship is a she. And, I hope, will forever be.

Also among sailors, a storm is a she. Whoever heard of a crewman shouting ‘thar he blows?’ Tradition had it, hurricanes were Alice, Brenda, Carla and so forth until the government — which runs the National Weather Service, which names the hurricanes — got into the act.

On the flip side, among fishermen, their fish is a he, a hawg, snollygaster, horse or monster. ‘Look at him run, they shout, never look at her run — or what does she weigh. But the way things are going in our society, what lies ahead?

Take, for instance, the damselfish or better still the oldwife; will the damselfish become the itfish? The old wife, the old spouse? And what about the Atlantic hagfish or the white-headed hagfish?

Naming Fish Is Busy Work
The list of fish names — real and sometimes given by anglers in different parts of the country or world — is virtually endless, which is confirmed by a check on a Swedish Website, Oroabok Gunnars Jonssonar. Listed are about 3,500 names from abyssal armed grenadier to Zugmeyer’s pearleye. Among them are 15 different rockfish with such names as bocaccio rockfish and four and five bearded rocklings, rock cook, rock sole, rock sturgeon, widow rock (the mate of the fish you took home and cooked?) and learned rock (the striper that’s too smart to take your favorite bucktail in Chesapeake Bay?).

Some names would baffle even Noah Webster. Being an outdoor writer for more than 50 years, I’m glad most of those fish don’t swim hereabouts — or at least aren’t being caught. Take, for instance, cyptinodontoids. I’d have to look the spelling up every time I mentioned a catch.

Curious, I referred to Life In Chesapeake Bay by Alice Jane and Robert L. Lippson, where I learned that this little fish found along the water edges — and also known as the sheepshead minnow or variegated minnow — grows to about four inches. Its configuration is something akin to that of a bluegill; it is brightly colored and the males are iridescent peacock blue during spawning time in spring and early summer.

I’ve never seen cyptinodontoid, not that I know of. And if the occasion ever arises, I’ll ignore it rather than peck out on the computer c-y-p-t-i-n-o-d-o-o-n-t-o-i-d-s. My spelling ability is more along the lines of rock, perch, drum, spot, shad, cobia, bass and maybe something with as many letters as catfish.

Sounds Fishy to Me
While on catfish, did you know that cat is in the names of 37 fishes? There’s even a fish called the Atlantic false cat shark. How about stinging catfish, loricarid armoured catfish, small spotted catshark, spoonbill cat, long whiskered catfish, banjo catfish, callichthyid armored catfish, mouse catshark, upside-down catfish, jelly cat, mailed catfish and two that sound risky to play around with — the stinging catfish and the electric catfish. In Maryland, we’re pretty much confined to the chase of the blue, white and channel catfish.

If you wonder what catfish eat, there are such fitting staples as the sea mouse, ratfish and rattail.

Dogs get a big play in fish names, though not even close to cats. We have the dogfish sharks down Ocean City way, which, incidentally, are available to early season anglers who fish offshore for mackerel and sea bass — and can be quite tasty.

But elsewhere there are such assorted canine species as the birdbeak dogfish, blackmouthed dog shark, dog salmon, longnosed spurdog, houndfish, longnose velvet dogfish, nursehound and — one rabbit hunters would like — the porbeagle.

There’s an assortment of appropriate game for the piscatorial hounds to chase, species such as the bentnose rabbitfish, goosefish, large-eyed or small-eyed rabbitfish, straightnosed rabbitfish, squirrel hake, squirrelfish and squirrel ling. Too big would be the elephantfish, common or spotted wolffish, pigeyed shark and common wolffish. A good pointing dog might prefer the woodcockfish.

One can’t help but wonder where some of these names come from. How would you like to reel in an Antarctic snaggletooth? No matter how hungry, would you dare try and take a hook from its mouth. At the market, would you buy an Atlantic spiny lumpsucker?

What would a big mouth pelican gulper look like? Or a pelican blowgun fish? A boa dragon sure sounds scary, moreso the gulper or megamouth shark or the boa dragonfish. Would you wash a kid’s mouth out with soap if he told you he caught a bastard sole or bastard sturgeon — and would the politically correct have us refer to it as a fish born out of wedlock?

We probably know how the six-eyed sole got its name, but what about these fish: bulbous dreamer, Miller’s thumb, canopener, poacher, and one that describes what every fisherman would like to do more of, the catchalot.

Enough Said
We’ve strayed far from that horrendous campaign to drop the she from ships, but what better way to take the mind off such malarkey than to read about something else, especially fish?

And, if perchance we meet, and you want to talk about fish and the craft that takes you to where they bite, don’t you dare say ‘he’s the fastest boat on the Bay.’ Or ‘It takes me to fish every time.’ I’ll drop an anchor on your ankle.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly