July 20, 2018
That Which We Call A ‘Starfish’
By JARED LLOYD
COASTAL REVIEW ONLINE
Is it a “sea star” or a “starfish?”
For marine bio nerds, this is kind of like a Ford-versus-Chevy
argument, like Land Rover versus Land Cruiser, or vinegar versus no
vinegar on your barbecue. Actually, that last bit about barbecue is not
up for discussion. This is eastern North Carolina, to suggest that
anything other than vinegar, cold slaw and hot sauce belongs on our
pulled pork would solicit a mob of angry villagers storming your house
in the night with pitchforks and torches in hand.
Somehow, the debate over what to call these iconic little echinoderms
surfaces in my world on at least an annual basis. I’m not so sure as to
what this says about the company that I keep. Given all the things
happening in the world of politics and science and pseudoscience that
can be argued these days, it seems almost trivial, dare I say pedantic,
to get sucked into the “sea star” versus “starfish” debate. And yet, I
just can’t help myself.
I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If we were being completely
honest with ourselves, neither starfish or sea star would be the real
name of our five-legged friends – though not all of them actually have
five legs and some have as many as 40. Technically speaking,
scientifically speaking, we should probably just look toward the name
that their class was given in 1830 by the French zoologist Henri Marie
Ducrotay de Blainville. Studying the shape and form of various
starfish, Ducrotay brought together the Greek “aster” and “eidos” in
the classical manner of giving animals a descriptive name from ancient
languages. “Aster” simply means “star,” which, it would seem, everyone
has picked up on already. “Eidos,” on the other hand, means “form” or
“essence” or was used to suggest similarity. When combined, “aster” and
“eidos” mean “star-like,” and the class of echinoderms that starfish
reside in is the Asteroidea. Thus, starfish are really asteroids!
Problem solved. Everyone is wrong.
But as much as I would love for the name asteroid to catch on, I hear
it’s already taken. I can understand not wanting to confuse people any
more than they already are. Just think about it: In the chance of an
extinction-level event from space, we wouldn’t want the public thinking
that a giant starfish was hurtling toward Earth. Although, that could
So, I digress. Asteroid is off the table. Though technically correct,
we must leave this title to rocks and ice floating around in space. But
if not asteroid, then what? This just brings us back to the original
question at hand, and for this it may be best to turn toward history.
Anytime we get into the historical use of words, we risk wading into
murky waters. Language is alive. It changes. It grows, evolves.
Meanings drift over time. Take the word “fish,” for instance. Today, we
have a very well-defined definition of the word “fish.” Consulting with
Lord Google on the matter will bring up a variety of definitions as to
what a “fish” is, but at the heart of it all is a cold-blooded
vertebrate with gills and fins and a two-chambered heart. But this is a
purely modern-day understanding of the word. If we go back to the 16th
century, for instance, the word “fish” simply meant any animal that
only lived in water. In this understanding of the word, whales and
dolphins were both fish and so were crabs, for that matter. So, a
starfish was simply a star-like animal that lived only in the water.
The earliest documentation of the word “starfish” that I could find is
from 1538 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Really, it’s the word
“starfyshe.” If the word made it into the dictionary by the early 16th
century, this means that “starfyshe,” had been part of the common
vernacular for a long time.
When we look into the origin of the name “sea star,” however, we find
that the earliest definition in the English-speaking world was actually
a star that guides mariners at sea. Fair enough. I can get down with
celestial navigation. But it’s not that simple. Just 30 years after our
“starfyshe” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, Edward Fenton,
an English sea captain, translated the French Pierre Boaistuau’s
immensely popular “Histoires Prodigieuses.” in to his native tongue.
“Histoires Prodigieuses” was collection of stories and common-knowledge
explanations of the natural world. Though that’s really the polite way
of saying it. A more accurate explanation is that it was a collection
of myths and stories that surrounded the freaks of nature, which, it
would seem, all echinoderms qualified as freaks of nature at the time.
Thus in 1569, the phrase “sea starre” enters the English version of
this conversation “bycause it hath the figure of a painted starre.”
The fact that “sea starre” first entered the English vernacular thanks
to the translation of a French book says a lot about the two terms. You
see, “starfish,” it turns out, is a distinctly English word. The rest
of Western civilization, from Germany to France to Spain, called these
things sea stars. At least, that’s how their names translate.
America, use of the word “starfish” ultimately betrays our English
roots. I find this funny. After the Revolution, America entered into a
phase of cultural anxiety. Read: identity crisis. We had fought for and
won our freedom from England, and in every way possible we tried to
cast off our artistic, literary and even scientific ties to the Old
World. However, language persisted, such as “starfish” and “buffalo”
and “antelope.” But hey, there are far greater ironies in American
culture than something as trivial as this really – such as the fact
that we celebrate our independence from an empire by reveling in the
fruits of that empire: Chinese-invented fireworks.
Come the 1990s, a bandwagon rolled into town telling us all that we
were wrong to use the term “starfish.” All the cool kids in Europe were
saying “sea star.” We needed to get with the program. Starfish were not
fish, they said. We were using the word incorrectly. We were confusing
people. Maybe this was why countries from Vietnam to Estonia far
outranked our own students in their knowledge of science, according to
the Pew Research Foundation. It’s all the starfish’s fault, right? Oh,
the power of language!
But, jellyfish are not fish. And sea urchins are not really poor street
kids that live in the sea. What about crayfish? Horseshoe crabs? Sea
cucumbers? Brain Coral isn’t really made of brains. Flying lemurs are
not really lemurs and they certainly do not fly. And if we are really
going to ride this train, it can also be pointed out that the name “sea
star” is also incorrect, given that they are not actually stars.
Furthermore, to argue that the proper term for these echinoderms is
“sea star” ultimately invalidates much of the rest of the world. Though
we like to think we are special, Europe and it’s political offspring
like the U.S. are just a small group of countries with very big egos.
In Japan, for instance, they are called “hitode,” meaning “palm.” In
Malay, they were known as “tapak sulaiman,” or “Solomon’s footprint.”
And the Korean word, which I can’t type because I don’t know how to
create all the cool symbols on my keyboard, means “immortality.”
“Starfish,” “sea star,” “seastar” or “Solomon’s footprint” – call them
what you will. All are correct. And yet, none of them are correct.
Really, they are asteroids: star-like.
Deal with it.