My last post on how jellyfish got the name Medusa made me wonder about names of jellyfish in general. Have other cultures seen the same connections between jellyfish and the monster? Or do they see the angel side of the jellyfish, the diaphanous graceful aspect?
It’s not so easy to find answers to these questions on the internet. Language translators tell you the spelling–often in letters I can’t read–but never the meaning. The only name that popped up when I searched Google was on Buzzfeed’s list of wacky Welsh words. In Wales, jellyfish are commonly called “cont y mor,” but also “psygod wibbly wobbly,” or wiggle wiggle fish, which is what you’d get if you could make up the equivalent of an onomatopoeia for a word’s meaning.
(And somehow it’s not surprising that Buzzfeed has published a list of wacky Welsh words. What is surprising is that they don’t already have a list The World’s 10 Most Interesting Names for Jellyfish. Back off Buzzfeed! This is my list!)
I know a few names of jellyfish from my travels. Spain, Italy, and France go with medusa. Similarly, Israel calls jellies “meduzot.” In Japan, jellyfish are called “kurage.” But I wanted more.
Luckily, the lab where I work at The University of Texas is a mini United Nations. People from all over the world come there to study the best ways to sequester carbon dioxide deep underground where it won’t contribute to climate change. Following one weekly meeting, I walked around knocking on office doors to survey jellyfish names. After getting past the bemused smile, what I found was poetry.
Latin America has the widest array of names. In Spanish, jellyfish are called medusa, but also “malaguas” or “agua mala,” meaning bad water. Sometimes they are even called “lagrimas de mer,” which pulls at my heart with its translation: sea tears. Brutal.
More encouragingly, in Portuguese, jellyfish are known as “aqua viva,” or living water. But the award for the most creative Latin American name goes to “aguacuajada,” which means curdled water. (It’s a fantastic description, and I’m stuck with the image of an upturned cottage cheese container pulsing away.)
In China, the word for jellyfish is written “haizhe” (pronounced hai dju). The word is written in two characters. The left part of the left character means water. The right side of that character means mother. Together, the character represents the sea. The lower half of the right character means bug. (The top tells the reader how to pronounce the word.) So jellyfish are known as sea bugs. Undoubtedly, the Chinese understood ecology when they named jellyfish.
In Farsi, jellyfish are called “arood darya-i,” meaning sea bride. I’m guessing that’s for the long trailing oral arms that appear so veil-like. And in Turkish, they take on an even more powerful female role. Called “denizanasi,” jellyfish are likened to the mother of the sea.
The search was getting fun, so I reached out to more friends for more jellyfish colloquialisms.
In Norway, jellyfish are called “manet,” and there are two types. You don’t want to meet up with “brennmanet” because it will burn you. But you can pick up and play with the clear “glassmanet,” which, according to Norwegian Wikipedia look to be the common moon jellyfish.
At a party, I heard from an Italian that in the Caribbean jellyfish are sometimes called devil’s whip. He went on to say it had something to do with men swimming naked and getting stung in a sensitive spot. I’ve not been able to validate that term.
Looking back over the list of meanings, I’d say the tally is about half positive and half negative. The names confirm the idea that no matter where they are found jellyfish manage to waft back and forth across the line between the divine and the demon.
My deadline for this post is today, but I’ve got more queries out to friends from Bangladesh and Nigeria, where a dozen languages are spoken. Dear Reader, if you know any other local names for jellies, please chime in! Stay tuned, this blog is definitely to be continued.
*Many thanks to Changbing Yang, Vanessa Nunez-Lopez, Anne Boysen Doga, and Seyyed Hosseini for translations.