Flat as a flounder
A fishy metaphor shows the loopy linguistic journey taken by a family of flat fish
M. Michael Brady
The flounder is a flatfish native to the bottom zones of waters off the west coast of northern and central Europe, from the White Sea in the north around the Scandinavian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Phonology suggests that its name is derived from the Anglo-French floundre, which still is the word for it in Normandy. The most logical root of that word is the Old Norse flyðra, which is related to the word “flat” and survives today in the Norwegian flyndre.
Worldwide, the taxonomy (scientific classification) of flatfish is enormous, with more than 700 flatfish species in 11 families. Unsurprisingly, there are variations in the hierarchies of names of flatfish species. For example, in Norwegian, flyndrefisker (flounder fish) is the collective name of all flatfish, and flyndrefamilen (flounder family) designates a family of about 60 species, of which eight are found in Norwegian waters. In contrast, in English, flounder appears in the compound names of just one family of flatfish.
The disparity in names can complicate buying fish between the two languages. Of the eight flyndrefamilien species in Norway, just three are actually named flyndre in Norwegian—grapeflyndre, sandflyndre, and smørflyndre. The one of the eight named flounder in English, the European Flounder, is called skrubbe in Norwegian.
Etymological history suggests that the Norwegian designation of flynderfisker for all flatfish existed in English until the early 16th century, when specific species, such as sole, were mentioned along with flounder. The first published mention of the flounder was around the year 1420, in A Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle, the first English book on angling. It was written by Juliana Berners, an Englishwoman who, in the tradition of her time, was of noble birth but had taken up the monastic life as the prioress of the Priory of St. Mary of Sopwell in Hertfordshire to pursue her fascination for hawking, hunting, and fishing.
Thereafter, the flounder was often mentioned in descriptive literature. In 1845 its deep undersea habitat set the scene in the sixth stanza of the poem “To Tom Woodgate of Hasings” by the English poet Thomas Hood. Then, in 1857 American explorer Elisha Kent Kane gave flounder metaphorical status in his epic account Arctic Explorations: The second Grinnell expedition in search of Sir John Franklin when on page 77 he reported remarks by crewman Brooks: “Captain Kane, five nights to come one year, you came in upon four of us as flat as flounders.”
The metaphor “flat as a flounder” then traveled back into Norwegian as flat som en flyndre. And with today’s brief text style, one reads of situations in which something is flyndreflat. Full circle: from Old Norse to English and then back to Norwegian.
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 Sept. 22, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.