When does a pez become a pescado?

One of my favorite “fun facts” about Spanish is that it has two words for ‘fish’: pez, for a live fish, and pescado, for fish that is food, as in a restaurant or a fish market. Pez is a direct descendant of the Latin word pisces. Pescado is the past participle of the verb pescar ‘to fish’, and literally means ‘fished’; it’s fish that has been fished, or caught.

I was reminded of this word pair yesterday, when my husband and I had breakfast in Spanish Harlem, at a corner taquería, or centro de comida, called El Águila. The wall near our table was decorated with reproductions of Mexican state seals and lotería cards, which are used in a variety of bingo-like games as well as fortune-telling. Two of the lotería images caught my eye: “El Negrito” (next-to-last row, furthest right), because it’s so dated, and also “El Pescado” (bottom row, second from left, also see close-up).

El Águila

Since the fish is still in the water, and is still alive, I thought it would be labeled pez. Instead, the lotería card apparently captures the “decisive moment” in which the poor pez becomes a pescado. Once it’s on the hook, there is no turning back.

The taquería’s name, El Águila, is itself of linguistic interest. First, águila is one of those feminine Spanish nouns that take a masculine article (el) in the singular to stop the a of the feminine article la from blending in with the initial a of the noun, as it does (legitimately) in Italian words like l’amica (from la amica). Second, the taquería itself and its website are missing the accent mark in Águila. This illustrates the common, though technically incorrect, tendency to omit accent marks on capital letters.



8 thoughts on “When does a pez become a pescado?

  1. Richard Detwiler

    Interesante. I guess, it would never have occurred to me to think of a fish with a hook in its mouth or a fish in a fisherman’s net, whether or not still alive and still in the water, as anything other than “caught” or “pescado”. 🙂

  2. Lynda Pilgreen

    My students often think this is “so weird” until I remind them that we don’t have Cow Stroganoff or Bone In Cow.

  3. Jon Aske

    What is curious is that although in English fish is fish, whether it is swimming happily or on the table, for many meats, English (but not Spanish) does exactly the same thing that Spanish does for fish and has a word for the animal and another one for the animal-as-food: pig – pork, cow – beef, etc.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      But in English these are usually pairs of Germanic words (for the animal) and French words (for the meat), ¿no? That’s one of the first interesting linguistic tidbits I ever learned!

      1. Fred

        For a discussion of this, see the beginning of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. I understand that the explanation given there — by two Saxon peasants — is not universally accepted among linguists.

        1. jhochberg Post author

          Fred, I first read your comment on my phone, out of context, and promptly attempted a Google search on “Ivanhoe pescado”, which gave me a Spanish translation of the novel! Now that I am home and back on my computer, your comment makes perfect sense. Here’s the specific passage, for the curious:

          “Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.
          “Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”
          “And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”
          “Pork,” answered the swine-herd.
          “I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”

  4. Pingback: One fish two fish pez pescado | Spanish Linguist

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