Please help me with the weird Latin name of a wonderful fish: Awaous banana

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?

While you think about that, I’ll be rolling the name repeatedly over my tongue.  Awaous banana; Awaous banana; Awaous banana.  Like Upupa epops and Salacca zalacca, it’s just plain fun to say.

© 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.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Please help me with the weird Latin name of a wonderful fish: Awaous banana

  1. Guillaume J. Dury

    I found this that may be of (some) interest: “The name “Awaous” cannot be adopted from Valenciennes for this group, as used by him, was evidently not in any sense a subgeneric name, but a French plural noun, “Awaou” being the vernacular name of one of the species in the Sandwich Islands.”
    From the Proceedings of the United States National Museum, Volume 9, page 499. Here’s a Google Books link (hoping it works).

    Like

    Reply
    1. Guillaume J. Dury

      I find partial support for “awaou” being the French vernacular name of Gobius ocellaris from “Otaheite” (Tahiti) in page 236 of the Observations sur la physique, sur l’histoire naturelle et sur les arts (1783) by François Rozier (Google Books link). In the same passage, they mention other fishes from the Sandwich Islands, but not that the ‘awaou’ is from there.

      Like

      Reply
      1. Guillaume J. Dury

        Another piece of information, says that awaou is used by Tahitians islanders (maybe implying it’s not French?): “(2) Par les insulaires de Taïti, awaou, selon le docteur Solander.” (translates to “(2) By the islanders of Tahiti, awaou, according to doctor Solander.”) in Histoire naturelle generale et particuliere, Volume 99 (1799) by Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon (Google Books link).

        Like

        Reply
        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Terrific – the 1783 Rozier link is the earliest mention I’ve seen. That means Valenciennes was off base connecting it to the “Indian Ocean” – Tahiti being a rather long way from there)!

          Like

          Reply
  2. Pavel Dodonov

    A long shot, but, it sort of sounds like native south-american languages. For example, in southern Chile there’s the Huerquehue park, pronounces like “Wuerquewe”. Not sure of other native american languages have similar phonetics, but it might make sense.

    Like

    Reply
  3. Friedman Lab

    I replied this on twitter, but I’ll post it here too
    First post:
    It looks like the first named species in the genus is Awaous ocellaris (Broussonet) in 1782, which is from the Philippines, so it may be named for the waterfall you mention
    Second post:
    Actually, maybe it is a Hawaiian word. See this, from the Bulletin of the United States National Museum, Issue 47, pg 2234: https://books.google.ca/books?id=bBhAAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA2234&dq=%22Awaou,+a+Hawaiian+name%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiruNTryo7hAhXwt1kKHc0iACIQ6AEILzAB#v=onepage&q=%22Awaou%2C%20a%20Hawaiian%20name%22&f=false

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      It can’t be Broussonet, as he named the species as Gobius ocellaris – it was moved later into Awaous. But interestingly, one synonym for G. ocellaris is G. awaou (Lacepede, 1800)! I hadn’t realized that, and that species name predates Valenciennes. So it’s possible that when he talks about awaous, he means G. ocellaris.

      The Hawaiian mention from 1898 long postdates the Tahitian one from 1783, but it still suggests a Polynesian language origin. Not what I expected given Valencienne’s mention of the Indian Ocean.

      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  4. Armin Namayandeh

    The word “awa” in Papiamentu (a Caribbean language) means water. It is burrowed from old Spanish for aqua. Is this related? I don’t know, perhaps.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Armin – I’m afraid this is most likely a coincidence (too bad!). Although A. banana is distributed in the Caribbean, the “Awaous” name increasingly looks like it has a Indo-West-Pacific origin – likely Tahitian. This kind of stuff is what makes etymology both difficult and fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Armin Namayandeh

        It has intrigued me a lot too. To tell you the truth I made a bit of inquiry myself. I wanted to know when the word “Awaous” was used first. If we look at described species of Awaous, name of authors are in most part in bracket, indicating that they were described by other genus name. The earliest record if I am not mistaken (please check again) is by C. H. Eigenmann, 1918 for A. decemlineatus which is junior synonym of Awaous flavus (Valenciennes, 1837). Eigenmann did an extensive fish study both in the Caribbean and South America. Records of his work can be found in Biodiversity Library (online) and Carnegie Museum where he was working. There could be clue in there.
        Cheers

        Armin

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      OK, so there’s no “w”, it seems, in Tahitian; but “aua” means “a freshwater fish” among other seemingly unrelated things. Which leaves it unclear where the “ou” comes from, but definitely progress! I like it when you procrastinate.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.