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The Most Critical Question of Our Time


Sure, I could write about impeachment and the decline of American democracy or climate change, or, God forbid, the Democratic primary. But I’ve been occupied with a far more interesting issue of late: Why is it that we refer to canned tuna as “tuna fish” when we don’t do that with any other kind of fish? Is your family confused between fresh salmon and canned salmon that requires the use of “salmon fish”? Obviously not!

Of course the internet has an answer: But it is not compelling at all.

I’ve been wondering lately about the phrase “tuna fish.” Why do we say “tuna fish,” but not “bass fish” or “shark fish?” Isn’t “fish” redundant after “tuna?” Actually, no, because there is actually another tuna unrelated to fish: the prickly pear cactus.

With other fishy words we also add “fish,” e.g. codfish, swordfish, lionfish, etc. That makes sense since “cod” and “sword” and “lion” can refer to items other than fish. Using “fish” after such nouns can help a non-native speaker of English who might not know what a tuna or cod is. Also, it turns out that “tuna” can refer to non-fishy items, e.g. a cactus fruit. California has a place called La Tuna Canyon, not for ocean fish that might have swum there a million years ago, but for the prickly pear cactus found there. The word “tuna” in Spanish can mean “prickly pear.”

Nope, nope, nope.

Yes, it is true that the prickly pear fruit is called a tuna. But this is an extremely obscure food item in American gastronomy, past or present. If people were only referring to “tuna fish” in Arizona and New Mexico and southern California, maybe, but let’s just say that eating cactus fruit is essentially unknown in Rhode Island, where plenty of people refer to tuna fish.

The mystery continues.

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