Image: Awaous banana, from a tributary of the Sibun River, Belize; photos © Eric Meng, with permission
I’m sure you’ll agree: this (above) is an utterly enchanting fish, strange and beautiful at the same time. It’s the river goby, a widespread fish of New World subtropical and tropical streams from Florida and Texas south to Peru. I ran across it* two weeks ago, while teaching my tropical ecology field course in Belize. It’s not just its gorgeous patterning; and it isn’t just its startling size (there are about 2,000 species of gobies in the world; few exceed 10 cm in length**, or about half the size of the colossus in the photo). It’s also, at least for me, its name: Awaous banana.
Awaous banana? What kind of psychedelic fever might lead someone to name a fish Awaous banana?
I was curious, and (since I have something of a sideline in digging up the etymologies of Latin names) I proclaimed confidently that I’d trace it and explain it to my students. I’m here today to tell you that I failed (at least in part), and to ask for your help.
I can, at least, explain banana. The species was named (as Gobius banana) by Achille Valenciennes, a student of Georges Cuvier’s. The two coauthored a 22-volume monograph, Histoire Naturelle des Poissons (Natural History of Fishes) between 1828 and1848 (Cuvier died in 1832, and Valenciennes continued the series but never removed Cuvier from the title pages.) In Volume 12 (1837, page 103), Valenciennes named Gobius banana based on a specimen from the Riviere Acul, in northwestern Haïti. He explained the name by saying that the Haïtian people applied the French name banane to this and several other species of elongated river fishes – roughly, one infers, banana-shaped ones.
But what about Awaous? My efforts to trace this were a failure. Most sources cite Valenciennes 1837 again as the authority for the generic name Awaous, but Valenciennes uses the term only twice, referring vaguely to a group of fishes and capitalizing it (as if it were a proper noun) the first time but not the second (Hist. Nat. Poiss. 12:64 and 104). He doesn’t explain its etymology or use it as the name for a genus. Jordan and Seale’s 1904 Fishes of Samoa cites three candidate authorities: Valenciennes (again, but referring to an 1860 publication and with the note “no explanation”), Steindachner (without a specific reference or date, although Steindachner didn’t begin to publish until well after 1837), and Bleeker (1875). It’s possible one of these three sources is the correct authority for the genus name, but they aren’t its origin, since all postdate Valenciennes’ casual use of the term. Few hints, then, as to how Valenciennes coined the word – and in a rare instance of sanity prevailing, I gave up the wild goose chase (goby chase?). “No explanation” was what I was going to get.
So this is where you come in. What might “Awaous” mean? It surely can’t be arbitrary. Valenciennes’ second reference (in the 1837 volume) mentions A. banana’s resemblance to “les awaous de la mer des Indes” (the awaous of the Indian Ocean), which suggests perhaps it derives from some language from that region***. That doesn’t narrow it down that much, though. There is a waterfall named Awao Falls in the Philippines, although that’s a bit of a stretch for the “Indian Ocean”; and there’s an Awao River in central Indonesia, which is perhaps more plausible. But I have no evidence that Valenciennes had either in mind. What can you suggest? Who wants to dive down this rabbithole after me?
© Stephen Heard March 19, 2019
*^”At arms length, unfortunately; it was caught in a minnow trap but released before I could see it in person.
**^”The smallest include at least two species that can be reproductively mature at less than 1 cm standard length: the accurately named Trimmatom nanus and Pandaka pygmaea.
***^”“Latin”, or scientific, names are formed and treated as if they were Latin, but can derive from any language – even (in principle but unfortunately not yet in practice) Klingon.