Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Words Fail Me / Words Fail Crustaceans

Last year, I ate a less-than-exalted crustacean, the langostino, for the first time. That night, I thought I should write about it on grounds that this cheap source of lobster-like meat linguistically interesting. But in trying and failing a few times to state what I thought was so interesting, I realized that the topic was hard to put into words — appropriately, since this animal stand out as a good example of how sometimes language sometimes just can’t accurately describe a given thing. Finally, months later, I produced this.

a langostino (he’s doin’ the sit-’n’-reach)

Here’s the deal: Among Americans, the more elegant term for this edible shellfish may be langostino, but the common name is squat lobster, which sounds like a sadder, pudgier version of the B-52s song. The distinction between these two names is more important than you might expect. In 2006, a lawsuit was filed against the Rubio’s Mexican seafood chain — where I ate my langostino taco, I should point out — over whether it can legally market this kind of shellfish as lobster. Biologically speaking, this tasty but controversial little guy is literally neither here nor there, since the term squat lobster can refer to three different families of sea bugs, none of them being lobsters at all. In fact, according to Wikipedia, they’re all more closely related to the kinds of crabs people don’t usually eat — hermit crabs and porcelain crabs — than the ones we do.

The judge ultimately made no ruling in the Rubio’s suit, but it’s apparent that English lacks the words needed to refer to this thing in a way that everyone finds both accurate and appealing. As far as names go, lobster isn’t right. So what’s left? Squat as a noun can mean literally “nothing” or at least “a worthless thing.” It’s a tough name to be assigned, even for an unassuming, bottom-feeding crustacean.

This got me thinking: Why the hell do we English-speakers use the word squat to refer to the stuff we’d rather not have? It comes from the Old English squatten and goes back to a form of the Latin verb cogere, “to force together” or “to compress” or “to compel” or other similar meanings. For a number of reasons, my reaction to this etymology is “Oh, like feces,” since this particular substance is usually unwanted, it is compressed (at several points along its journey), and depending if you’re camping or not, you may actually have to physically squat to finally rid yourself of it. So, I guess for a creature whose name amounts to “shit lobster,” the langostino didn’t taste half bad, though the fecal connotations might have made me subconsciously lower my expectations. But at least it makes sense that we call it langostino then, right?

Unfortunately, the term langostino still sucks, inexplicably marine-y thought it may sound. Its meaning is far from universal. From Wikipedia:
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration allows langostino as a market name for three species in the family Galatheidae: Cervimunida johni, Munida gregaria, and Pleuroncodes monodon. In Spain, it means some species of prawns. In Cuba and other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, the name langostino is also used to refer to crayfish. In South America, the name langostino is used to refer to red shrimp, Pleoticus muelleri.
According to Webster, langostino comes to English from Spanish, where it is a diminutive of langosta, the “spiny lobster,” which are also not technically lobsters and which are known to various English-speaking people as rock lobsters or, confusingly, langoustes. To complicate matters more, Southern Hemisphere English-speakers refer to spiny lobsters as crawfish or crayfish, even though Americans use these terms to refer to yet more varieties of crustaceans, and that’s only when they’re not calling them crawdads. Langosta and langoustine both come from the Latin locusta, which meant “lobster” as the term is strictly understood today, but could also be used to refer to any lobster-shaped animal… including the locust, which someone at some point thought looked enough like a lobster that it should be lumped in the same category.

If that all weren’t confusing enough, yet another species exists with a similar name: the langoustine. Also known as scampi, Norway lobster or Dublin Bay prawn (even though it’s not a prawn), this creature, Nephrops norvegicus, actually is a true lobster, though you’d hardly be able to tell for sure if you were ordering it off a menu. Honestly, the fisherman, the cook and the waiter might not know for sure, given the similarity of langostino, langouste and langoustine.

Why should anyone bother to discern one from the other? They taste different, depending on where they’re caught and what they’ve eaten, and I suppose some might consider one more prestigious than another, even though each is just a subtly different version of the same basic sea bug model. (When I think about the qualities that insects and crustaceans share, it actually seems less strange that locusts would be mashed into this verbal bouillabaisse.) However, I say good luck to you, Mr. or Mrs. Seafood Connoisseur: I just wrote those preceding two paragraphs, and I’ve already forgotten which word refers to which sea bug. And Neptune help you if you’re trying to order a specific variety of crustacean off a menu printed in a different language, because even a linguistically educated guess could steer you wrong. I mean, would you be able to guess the langostino from the langoustine on a menu at a Portuguese seafood shack?

This verbal chaos makes a lot of sense, however, when you consider the subject at hand. To most people, ocean floor-dwelling creatures are little understood and rarely considered, at least until the end up on a dinner plate. And if there would be any one cuisine that would most easily fall victim to a complicated, overlapping and often erroneous set of names, it would be the one that, back in the day, would have been experienced by sea-faring people moving from one port to another, speaking all manner of languages and trying to explain their meal in whatever terms were most familiar to them. (“It look like lobster, no? I call it lobster.” Head nods, revealing a smear of delicious seafood grease catching the light.) And, again, it should only pose serious problems to picky eaters and diehard food journalists who want to be sure, beyond the shadow of a squat lobster, what they’re eating.

To me, the classification doesn’t matter. I would gladly eat another langostino — in taco form or whatever other shape it chooses to crawl to me from the filthy ocean ocean depths. However, I wanted to point out an instance when words truly do fail us. In discussing these wonderful, edible animals, it would be very difficult to know for sure what you’re eating, especially if the person speaking with you didn’t realize the complexity of the matter. (But you know now! Kinda! Enough to be suspicious, anyway!) And despite how much I love language and words and all that, I’m endlessly fascinated how these constructions can sometimes utterly fail to do their job.

As for the sea-edibles themselves, I just eat them all with lemon and they taste pretty great.

Food and words, previously:

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