A fish by any other name: Brisling is a little-known but much-eaten fish

Photo: Anders Beer Wilse / Public Domain
Brisling fishing using shore seines at Jelsa, Rogaland, 1912.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The brisling, a small fish of the herring family, probably is Norway’s most consumed export fish round the world. Yet today in name it is unknown. Were you to walk into a fish shop anywhere, even in Norway, and ask for brisling, you most likely would learn that “brisling is not sold here.” But were you to ask a knowledgeable fishmonger, you might be directed to go elsewhere and buy something else. Therein the curious case of the fish well known to the fishermen who catch it, yet anonymous to the people who eat it.

The mystery extends to the word brisling itself. Its origin is not known exactly, though etymologists suspect a connection to the old Danish or Norwegian dialect verb brisa or brise, meaning “to flare up” or “glow,” descriptive of the light reflected from the silver gray scales of schools of brisling. The fish is native to waters off the west coast of Europe, from Norway to Portugal, so its Nordic name apparently became fixed as fishermen found catching it profitable. In Norway, brisling were first caught using shore seines drawn by rowboats out from and then in to shore, particularly along the coast of Rogaland County. Around 1910, purse seines drawn further out by motorized fishing smacks replaced the traditional shore seines, and catch volumes grew to supply the burgeoning industry of producing sardines, the collective term for many species of small herring that are cured and tinned for use as food. The word sardine is believed to have come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia where the fish once were prevalent, but that’s another story.

Some 11 species of small herring classify as sardines. The most prevalent species in Norwegian waters is the brisling. So from the linguistic viewpoint, a Norwegian brisling is a brisling when it is alive and caught but becomes a sardine when it is cured, tinned, and sold in shops.

Norway’s leading producer of sardines is King Oscar AS of Bergen, established in 1902 when King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway permitted his name and portrait to be used on sardine tins. King Oscar Sardines were first exported to the USA in 1903, where the market for them grew to be second only to the domestic market in Norway. Other large markets round the world include the rest of Europe, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and South Africa.

The bright red cellophane wrapper on a 106g tin of King Oscar Sardines includes a revealing detail. In small print, the requisite statement of ingredients includes the information that the tin contains 80g of cured brisling. So perhaps a tin of brisling is like a legal contract in which an essential detail may be in small print.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.