Common names are all that most people know about most fish

Claiming that the common names of fish are one of their most important attributes is an understatement. In fact, common names are all that most people know about most fish as shown by the fact that most people accessing FishBase on the Internet do so by common name.

Hence, FishBase would not be complete without common names. This fact has been considered very early in the design of FishBase (Froese 1990) and has resulted in the compilation of over 107,000 common names, probably the largest collection of its kind. It has taken us a long time, to realize, however, that each pair of ‘country’ and ‘language’ fields uniquely define a culture, and that a large fraction of what the people belonging to a certain culture know about fishes (i.e., local knowledge) can therefore be captured through the COMMON NAMES table including these fields.


The languages that can be accommodated through the COMMON NAMES table of FishBase differ in character. Some, such as English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, are very widespread and have names for many fishes not occurring in the countries where the language is spoken. Other languages are spoken only in a single country or locality. These languages usually have names for only those fish species that occur in the area. Users of FishBase should be aware of this distinction when evaluating our coverage of common names (see Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. An overview of the coverage of common names in FishBase, shown as percentage of four major language groupings; note that other language groupings exist for which FishBase also includes common names

As conceived, the COMMON NAMES table also allows entry of names from past cultures (if the sources allow unequivocal attribution to species level). We shall use this feature later to enter names from Ancient Egypt (Brewer and Freeman 1989), Greece (Thompson 1947), Rome (Cotte 1944), Medieval Germany (Bingen 1286) and others.

The combination of country and language defines a culture

Important ‘language-types’ considered in FishBase are AFS, referring to the English names selected by the American Fisheries Society (Robins et al. 1991a, 1991b), and FAO referring to FAO’s suggestions for stabilizing¾ at the global level¾ common names of fish in English, Spanish and French. To assist with such stabilization, FishBase staff have identified unique FishBase English names (for the SPECIES table), consisting of an FAO name, or if not available, of an AFS name, or if not available, of another English name, selected from amongst available names using the criteria in Robins et al. (1991a). The identification of unique names will continue in collaboration with FAO and AFS staff and other colleagues, until all species in FishBase, and eventually all fish species of the world have a potentially stable English common name.

The COMMON NAMES table has several uses

The most obvious use of the COMMON NAMES table is to identify the scientific name of a fish. Note, however, that non-standardized common names may point to more than one species. Other, less obvious, uses include:

  • preserving and making widely accessible ethnoichthyological knowledge from endangered cultures (Palomares and Pauly 1993; Palomares et al. 1993; Pauly et al. 1993);

  • testing qualitative or quantitative hypotheses about traditional classification schemes (see e.g., Hunn 1980; Berlin 1992; Palomares and Pauly 1993);

  • enabling mutual verification of facts from ethnoichthyology and its scientific counterpart (as in Johannes 1981); and

  • following the evolution of the linguistic subset represented by fish names, in space and through history, and test related hypotheses.


The information contained in the COMMON NAMES table was obtained from over 1,700 references, 545 of which were used for 95% of the common names in FishBase. The ten most used references, accounting for 25% of all common names in FishBase are: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (1990; 3.85%); Zaneveld (1983; 3.43%); Coppola et al. (1994; 3.34%); Robins et al. (1991; 3.11%); Masuda et al. (1984; 2.81%); Koltyar (1984; 2.70%); Herre and Umali (1948; 2.34%); Robins et al. (1980; 2.10%); Mohsin et al. (1993; 1.74%); and Grabda and Heese (1991; 1.44%).


There are, so far, over 16,000 species (63.7% of all species covered in FishBase) with common name records. Of these, over 12,000 species have standardized English FishBase names; over 3,000 species with no English names so far recorded; and about 1,000 whose existing English FishBase names and over 9,000 without any common name records at all.

The common names records cover a total of 205 languages, 69 of which represent 95% of the total number of common names. The ten most represented languages are: English at 36.5%; Spanish, 10.0%; French, 7.01%; Portuguese, 5.16%; Japanese, 3.74%; German, 3.64%; Malay, 2.95%; Afrikaans, 1.80%; Polish, 1.5%; and Arabic, 1.4%.

Check your language!

Verification of common names in the present version of FishBase was done by comparing names from several sources. To date, 17% of the 107,820 common names have been checked against Negedly (1990) for the almost 11,000 FAO names; and Robins et al. (1991) for the over 4,000 AFS names. A total of 42 collaborators (see acknowledgments below) helped us check names in different languages including FishBase staff that did visual checks for languages they mastered (English, German, French and several Philippine languages). Over 39,000 English and about 7,600 French vernacular names were verified through a spell checker.

You can generate lists of common names and local knowledge by species or by language in the Reports section accessible from the Main Menu. Similarly, a routine is available from the User Databases button in FishBase Advanced which deals with a user database on local names (see the ‘Local Knowledge Database’, this vol.).

Extension of the present coverage will continue to emphasize major single sources, e.g., Sanches (1989) for Portuguese, but will also include the shorter lists emanating from ethnozoological studies in the Americas, Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions. Interested colleagues are welcome to join in this effort.


The fields of the COMMON NAMES table are presented in some detail below with emphasis on the multiple choice fields:

Name: A text field that pertains to the vernacular or common name of a given species in a given culture.

Life Stage: A choice field that pertains to the life stage for which the common name is used. The seven choices included in this field are eggs; larvae; juveniles; juveniles and adults (default); adults; large adults; product. The last item pertains to the name of a fish product when different from that given to the fresh specimen. As this may refer to a commercial product, this allows covering of names used in the fishing industry as well as the ethnoichthyology of advanced trading societies.

Sex: A choice field that pertains to the sex of the fish to which the common name refers. The available choices are: females and males (default); females; spawning females; males; spawning males. Note that different names often are given to the different reproductive stages of female and male fish, sometimes in conjunction with religious rituals.

FishBase contains common names in over 200 languages

Language: A choice field for the language in which the common name is used. This covers over 200 languages in alphabetic order ranging from ‘Adangme’ to ‘Zande’ (see Fig. 8, for examples). The language field is linked to the Language Name in the LANGUAGE table which contains information on the language’s taxonomy (Language Family, Language Branch and Language Group), and the country or countries where it is spoken by the majority of its first language speakers. The data that complete the LANGUAGE table were obtained from Ruhlen (1991) and Grimes (1992) and are meant as additional hints on sources of local knowledge. Double-click on the language name to access information about the language.

Search for 'Schillerlocken'

Type: A choice field classifying the ‘language’, i.e., source or use of the common name. The choices are: vernacular; market; aquarium; FAO; and AFS. FishBase includes all Australian market names (Yearsley et al. 1997); market names recognized by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA; Randolph and Snyder 1993); and most European market names from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1990).

Etymology: consists of three choice fields, the first for describing the ‘core’ of a name (e.g., ‘cod’ in ‘coral rockcod’), the second and third being used for the first (‘rock’) and second (‘coral’) modifiers, if any. The choices for the first of these three fields, loosely based on, and expanded from Foale (1998), are as follows: primary lexeme; morphology; color pattern(s); behavior; habitat/ecology; taste/smell; person (generic); person (eponym); other fish; non-fish animal; plant; inanimate object; affinity; locality/area; other/n.a.

A primary lexeme

Categories of 1st and 2nd modifiers of core or root word: primary lexeme; morphology; color pattern(s); behavior; habitat/ecology; taste/smell; person (generic); person (eponym); other fish; non-fish animal; plant; inanimate object; locality/area; mod. for size; mod. for abundance; mod. for affinity; other/n.a.

Note that several choices other than ‘color pattern(s)’ do in fact refer to color patterns as well. Thus ‘person (generic)’, ‘non-fish animals’, etc. may indirectly indicate colors, (e.g., ‘convict surgeonfish’, so named because of its stripes, and the spine on its caudal peduncle, or ‘leopard shark’, because of its spots). This feature must be taken into account when analyzing the entries in terms of the number of color-related terms.

This approach, developed in 1998, for dealing with the etymology of fish names was applied, so far, to a little below 20,000 common names covering 79 languages and 11,635 species. The bulk of these (46.8%) are in English, followed by Japanese (18.2%), Spanish (12.0%), French (6.1%), Portuguese (3.1%), Swahili (2.3%), German (1.5%), Tagalog (1.4%), Tuamotuan (0.9%), Tamil (0.7%) and the 69 other languages comprising the rest.

Help us to understand names

Since this information is language specific, we hope that collaborators who speak languages other than English will help us in deciphering the meanings of common names for which these fields have not been filled in.

Remarks: A memo field is provided for details on the etymology of a given common name or additional information relevant to the understanding of that common name (e.g., the name ‘Lapu-lapu’, a common name for grouper in Tagalog and other languages of the Philippines, is also the name of the Philippine hero who, on 16 March 1521, slew Magellan, a would-be conquistador). To date, more than 24,000 common names contain information on their etymology covering 125 languages and about 15,500 species. English is the most represented with 45%, followed by Japanese (14%), French (10%), Malay (4%), Tagalog (3%), Spanish (2%), Portuguese (2%), Javanese (2%), Danish (2%) and Samoan (1%).

Like the three Etymology fields described above, this information is language, and in addition, culture specific. Thus, we hope that collaborators wishing to widen the coverage of their own ethnological knowledge as captured in this particular field will eventually take in the responsibility of improving its contents.

Rank. A numeric field, which indicates the importance of the language within the country where it is used. So far, four categories have been identified, viz.: Rank = 1, name adapted by the AFS or the FAO and may have been adopted in the country as the official name of the species; Rank = 2, name used in the national or official language of the country; Rank = 3, name used in other indigenous languages not considered official or national; Rank = 4, name used in a language not indigenous to the country but has been adopted either for its official or international use.

We rank common names by commonness

The Rank field is used in FishBase to display the national common names (Rank = 2) in a species by country list (see Reports, this volume), immediately after their standardized English FishBase name. There are cases, however, where Rank 2 names occur in several languages, e.g., as in Mauritania where Arabic, French and Wolof are all recognized as official languages. In such cases, only the standardized English FishBase name will be displayed. Also, there are cases where several Rank 2 names in the official language are available for the species. Here, FishBase displays the first occurrence of a Rank 2 name.

We have strived to fill in the rank fields of all common names in FishBase according to the definitions outlined above. Changes to the Rank field or additional definitions may occur in future versions of FishBase as we review its usefulness within the COMMON NAMES table. Your comments and suggestions regarding its use will be highly appreciated.

How to get there

You get to the COMMON NAMES table by: (1) clicking on the Common names button in the SEARCH BY window; (2) clicking on the Common names button in the SPECIES window; or (3) double-clicking on the common name in any of the reports generated on screen.

You get checklists of (1) species by common names, (2) common names by language, and (3) local knowledge by language and country, by clicking the Common names button in the PREDEFINED REPORTS window.

You get a graph of common names by language, divided into four language groups (see Fig. 8), by clicking on the Miscellaneous plots button in the GRAPHS window and then on the Common names by language button in the MISCELLANEOUS PLOTS window.


On the Internet version of FishBase, click on the Common Names link in the ‘More information’ section of the ‘Species Summary’ page to obtain a list of all common names used for the respective species.


Our thanks to the late M. Warren for helping us realize that FishBase could be used to record and structure ethno-ichthyologic knowledge and to FishBase Team members for helping with the entry of common names, notably, Ms. T. Cruz and Ms. C. Garilao whose joint efforts account for more than half of the common name records in FishBase. We also thank the various collaborators who either checked or provided lists of common names, notably: R. Kristo (Albanian); D. Preikshot (Alutiiq and Newfoundland English); S. Dammous, M.M. Fouda (Arabic); A. Chan (Chinese languages); M. Doray (Creole, French); V. Christensen, A.J.T. Dalsgaard (Danish); L. Abbott, T. Bishop, Kent Carpenter, A. Miyasaka, J. McArthur (English); S. Kuosmanen-Postila (Finnish); C. Lhomme-Binudin, J. Moreau, C. Papasissi, G. Rouleau (French); R. Froese and M. Vakily (German); R. Jones (Haida); T. de Feu (Hausa); M. Goren (Hebrew); E.A. Buchary and D.S. Wahyuningsih (Indonesian languages); E. Nic Dhonncha (Irish); F. Gagliardi (Italian); W. Swartz (Japanese); E. Nsiku and E. Kaunda (various Malawi languages); A.K.M. Mohsin (Malay); M.N. Trevor (Marshallese); C. Appleby (Norwegian); L. Coelho, M. Vasconcellos, K. Freire (Portuguese); V.V. Arkhipchuk, E.V. Romanov (Russian); A.G. de Sola Simarro, R. Robles, F. Sánchez Delgado (Spanish); B.A. Gottwald (Swedish); R. Chuenpagdee (Thai); S. Watkinson (Tsimshian); T. Hatton-Ellis (Welsh); K. Ruddle (various Southeast Asian languages); and J. Wadanya (various Ugandan languages).


Berlin, B. 1992. Ethnobiological classifications: principles of categorization of plants and animals in traditional societies. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 335 p.

Bingen, H. von. 1286. Das Buch von den Fischen. Edited by P. Riethe, 1991. Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg. 150 p.

Brewer, D.J. and R.F. Freeman. 1989. Fish and fishing in ancient Egypt. Aris and Philips, Warminster, England. 109 p.

Coppola, S.R., W. Fischer, L. Garibaldi, N. Scialabba and K.E. Carpenter. 1994. SPECIESDAB: Global species database for fishery purposes. User’s manual. FAO Computerized Information Series (Fisheries) No. 9. rome, FAO. 103 p.

Cotte, M.J. 1944. Poissons et animaux aquatiques au temps de Pline. Paul Lechevalier, Paris. 265 p.

Foale, S. 1998. What’s in a name? An analysis of the West Nggela (Solomon Islands) fish taxonomy. SPC Trad. Mar. Resour. Manage. Knowl. Info. Bull. 9:3-19.

Froese, R. 1990. FishBase: an information system to support fisheries and aquaculture research. Fishbyte 8(3):21-24.

Grabda, E. and T. Heese. 1991. Polskie nazewnictwo popularne Kraglonste i ryby. Cyclostomata et Pisces. Wyzsza Szkola Inzynierska w Koszaline. Koszalin, Poland. 171 p.

Grimes, B., Editor. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 12th ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas. 938 p.

Herre, A.W.C.T. and A.F. Umali. 1948. English and local common names of Philippine fishes. U.S. Dept. of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Serv. Circular No. 14. U.S. Gov’t. Printing Office, Washington. 128 p.

Hunn, E. 1980. Sahaptin fish classification. Northw. Anthropol. Res. Notes 14(1):1-19.

Johannes, R.E. 1981. Words of the lagoon: fishing and marine lore in Palau District of Micronesia. University of California Press, Berkeley. 245 p.

Kotlyar, A.N. 1984. Dictionary of names of marine fishes on the six languages. All Union Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography, Moscow.

Masuda, H., K. Amaoka, C. Araga, T. Uyeno and T. Yoshino. 1984. The fishes of the Japanese Archipelago. Vol. 1 (text). Tokai University Press, Tokyo, Japan. 437 p. (text), 370 pls.

Mohsin, A.K.M., M.A. Ambak and M.M.A. Salam. 1993. Malay, English and scientific names of the fishes of Malaysia. Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science, Universiti Pertanian Malaysia, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia, Occas. Publ. 11.

Negedly, R., Compiler. 1990. Elsevier’s dictionary of fishery, processing, fish and shellfish names of the world. Elsevier Science Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 623 p.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 1990. Multilingual dictionary of fish and fish products. Fishing News Books, Oxford.

Palomares, M.L.D. and D. Pauly. 1993. FishBase as a repository of ethno-ichthyology or indigenous knowledge of fishes. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Sustainable Development, 20-26 September, Silang, Cavite, Philippines (Abstract in Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 1(2):18).

Palomares, M.L.D., R. Froese and D. Pauly. 1993. On traditional knowledge, fish and database: a call for contributions. SPC Trad. Mar. Resour. Manage. Knowl. Info. Bull. (2):17-19.

Pauly, D., M.L.D. Palomares and R. Froese. 1993. Some prose on a database of indigenous knowledge on fish. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 1(1):26-27.

Randolph, S. and M. Snyder. 1993. The seafood list: FDA's guide to acceptable market names for seafood sold in interstate commerce. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, USA. pag. var.

Robins, C. R., R.M. Bailey, C.E. Bond, J.R. Brooker, E.A. Lachner, R.N. Lea and W.B. Scott. 1980. A list of common and scientific names of fishes from the United States and Canada. 4th ed. Am. Fish. Soc. Spec. Publ. 12: 1-174.

Robins, C.R., R.M. Bailey, C.E. Bond, J.R. Brooker, E.A. Lachner, R.N. Lea and W.B. Scott. 1991a. Common and scientific names of fishes from the United States and Canada. Am. Fish. Soc. Spec. Publ. 20, 183 p.

Robins, C.R., R.M. Bailey, C.E. Bond, J.R. Brooker, E.A. Lachner, R.N. Lea and W.B. Scott. 1991b. World fishes important to North Americans. Exclusive of species from continental waters of the United States and Canada. Am. Fish. Soc. Spec. Publ. 21, 243 p.

Ruhlen, M. 1991. A guide to the world’s languages. Vol. 1: Classification. With a postscript on recent developments. Stanford University Press, Stanford. 433 p.

Sanches, J.G. 1989. Nomenclatura portuguesa de organismos aquaticos. Publicações Avulsas do I.N.I.P. No. 14, Lisboa. 322 p.

Thompson, D.W. 1947. A glossary of Greek fishes. Oxford University Press, London. 302 p.

Yearsley, G.K., P.R. Last and G.B. Morris. 1997. Codes for Australian Aquatic Biota (CAAB): an upgraded and expanded species coding system for Australian fisheries databases. CSIRO Marine Laboratories, Report 224. CSIRO, Australia.

Zaneveld, J.S. 1983. Caribbean fish life. Index to the local and scientific names of the marine fishes and fishlike invertebrates of the Caribbean area (Tropical Western Central Atlantic Ocean). E.J. Brill / Dr. W. Backhuys, Leiden. 163 p.

Maria Lourdes D. Palomares and Daniel Pauly