The turning of the turbot; or, Having thorns in the wrong side

M. J. Driscoll

Although chiefly interested in the origins of fruit and vegetable names, I am occasionally intrigued by the names of other comestibles as well. Such was the case recently, when I found myself in a restaurant in Göteborg (of all places), confronted with a firm-fleshed fish known in Swedish, so the menu claimed, as piggvar. Call me an extremist, but I feel somewhat uncomfortable eating things the etymology of whose names I do not know – I am able to eat such things, to be sure, but would simply prefer not to. Perhaps extremist is too strong a word. In any case. I was fortunate in having on my left a young Norwegian man who told me that the name was the same in Norwegian and that he had in his youth fished such fish. He was therefore able to describe them in detail, but could not enlighten me as to the origin or meaning of the name. From his description, and the taste and consistency of the fish in front of us, I deduced it must have been one of the larger flatfish, a turbot perhaps. Identification was complicated slightly by the fact that the fish, which was otherwise very good, was served in something called “dragonsauce” – I cannot say what type of dragon was used in the preparation of the sauce, but it cannot have been a terribly piquant one – and, rather bizarrely, on top of a small piece of what proved to be boiled veal, a culinary solecism if ever there was one. But the fish itself, as I say, was good.

Upon my return to civilisation I set out to discover the origin of this extraordinary name, the better to set my mind, and my stomach, at rest. What follows is the result of my investigation.

It was indeed a turbot, that most excellent of fish. In Swedish and Norwegian the name is, as I have said, piggvar, while in the conservatively spelt (if “progressively” pronounced) Danish it has the form pighvarre. The second element is the ON and modern Icelandic hverfa, and is used of the group of flatfish (Bothidae) which are sinistral, i.e. have their eyes on the left side, while the two other main groups of flatfish, the Pleuronectidae, including halibut, plaice and other types of flounder, and the Soleidae, or soles, are dextral, i.e. have their eyes on the right side. The first element, pig(g), refers to the conical bony turbercles found on the eye-side of the turbot (cf. Scophthalmus rhombus, Danish slethvarre, Norwegian slettvar, Swedish slätvar, which have no such tubercles). The word turbot, incidentally, comes from (Old) French, but how it got there is another matter. According to some, it is to be derived from Medieval Latin turbo, “top”, i.e. the child's toy, owing, it is claimed, to a fancied similarity in shape (see illustration below). Others believe – less fancifully in my view – that the word is a borrowing into French from a Germanic language, presumably Low German, and is in fact thorn-butt, a word actually attested in early English, thorn on account of the bony protrusions, and butt meaning “flatfish”, cf. the German Butte, Dutch bot, a flatfish, and the -but in halibut. Botte is also the common name in Bornholm, I gather, for the turbot. Coincidence? I think not.

Nor, it seems to me, is it likely to be coincidence that it is the sinistral, rather than the dextral, flatfish that are called by the name -hverfa. The concepts “left” and “right” are so heavily loaded in most cultures that it is unlikely to have gone unnoticed that while the majority of flatfish turn right side up, which can only have been seen as proper (if one is going to turn any side up at all, that is), there were some that – perversely – turned left side up. Hence “hverfa”: fish that turn – or have been turned – the wrong way round.

My grandfather, with whom I used to fish in the waters in and around Boston Harbor, explained to me that flounder were the way they were because they had refused to participate in the loaves and fishes episode (i.e. as the fishes). As a punishment for having thus turned away from Christ they were themselves “turned” and made to swim on their sides forever. (He also showed me Christ's thumbprint on the presumably more co-operative haddock, but discussion of that will have to wait for another Festschrift. I can however mention that this thumbprint is in Icelandic folklore said to be that of the devil, rather than Christ's (see Ísl. sjávarhættir II, 337); I prefer my grandfather's version). I cannot now remember, I confess, whether the flounder we caught were dextral or sinistral, but I suspect they were the latter.

The Icelandic name for the turbot, so the dictionaries say, is sandhverfa, a word found in Snorri's Edda, but with reference to what fish is unclear. In the Icelandic translation of a Middle English exemplum, sandhverfa is used for “plaice” – one of the dextral flatfish (see Opuscula IV, 188). This need not be deeply significant, since the translator may simply not have known what a plaice, or rather “playse”, was. What surely is significant, however, is that the exemplum tells of a man condemned to death for having eaten the white, i.e. left or “wrong”, side of the plaice first; there would hardly have been such an uproar, I suspect, had the fish been a turbot.

In so far as the sandhverfa impinges at all upon the Icelandic piscary imagination, its name is assumed to refer to the fish's ability to disappear by half burying itself while at the same time changing colour in order to imitate the ground upon which it lies, and indeed, the turbot is able, like most flatfish, to “sand” within a matter of seconds. Other names used in Iceland include körtuflóki, again on account of the spiny tubercles, and öfughlýri, -flýri or -flúra, i.e. a flounder that's the wrong way round. I rest my case.

Finally, it could be added that although freshwater flatfish are extremely rare, I shouldn't be at all surprised to learn that a strain are to be found in Apavatn, having perhaps been introduced by some visiting Austmaður. Proof that the piggvar can inspire poetry can be found in the works of no lesser a poet than Hallgrímur Pétursson, who wrote “Hverfan er góð í heitan rétt” (Sálmar og kvæði, II, 416).

Speaking of which: Turbot should be steamed. To do anything else is to do it an injustice. A glass, or perhaps even two, of white wine makes the perfect accompaniment to the steaming process, and is quite nice with the fish too.

The noble, if misunderstood, turbot

The noble turbot

Bothus maximus or Psetta maxima (Linnaeus)
Illustration from Alan Davidson, North Atlantic Seafood (London, 1979).

© M. J. Driscoll.   This article originally appeared in Guðrúnarhvöt kveðin Guðrúnu Ásu Grímsdóttur fimmtugri, 23. september 1998 (Reykjavík, 1998).