I am currently in author review for a saltwater aquarium book scheduled for publication in December 2008. As such, I have the pleasure of working with an editorial team, as we manhandle the manuscript into shape in terms of style and stylistic consistency. As someone who holds an advanced degree in English, has taught many years of rhetoric, and has occasionally called himself an editor, I take a special interest in the careful choice of words. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Hemingway, but given the beauty and complexity of language, I do feel compelled to try to “get it right” as often as possible. Admittedly, getting it right is not an easy task, but for me, attempting to get there is often as interesting as the end result. A case in point:
While doing research recently, I came across an article titled “Aquarium English” by Ida Mellen in the August 1928 issue of American Speech. American Speech, founded in 1925, is a publication of Duke University Press concerned with the English language in the Western Hemisphere. Mellen’s article, as the title suggests, deals with the intersection of the English language and our beloved aquarium hobby.
By all accounts, Ida Mellen was one of the most renowned aquarists of her time. She served as the Secretary of the New York Aquarium and, later, she was the Aquarium’s Chief Aquarist. She authored many books and articles about aquaria, including Fishes in the Home (1927, 1931), Young Folks’ Book of Fishes (1927) and the eminently popular 1001 Questions Answered About Your Aquarium (1935). Her articles include “The Fresh-water Shrimp” (New York Zoological Society Bulletin, 1919), “Effects of Captivity on a Sex Character” (Science, 1922), “Goldfish Mortality” (Pet Dealer, 1928), and “Tropical Toy Fishes” (National Geographic, 1931). And then, of course, there was this 1928 article in American Speech….
“With the coming of the public aquarium,” her article begins, “there was difficulty in deciding upon the correct title for a person expert in the care of fishes and other aquatic animals in captivity.”
Today we call ourselves hobbyists, reefers, fish-keepers, and a plethora of other names that are descriptive of our association with the aquarium. We also (Mellen would be glad to know) call ourselves “aquarists,” the word she promotes in her article as being the most proper descriptor for the “experts” in the hobby (fish fan, however, seems to be sufficient, in her opinion, for the mere hobbyist).
As Mellen begins to unravel the etymological entrails of the word “aquarist,” she settles on the premise that whatever the word used to describe “a person expert in the care of fishes and other aquatic animals in captivity,” it should have the antecedent “aqua.” But aqua-what, she wonders? Aquarianist (the term used in William E. Damon’s 1896 book Ocean Wonders? Aquarian (the name employed by Thomas Rymer Jones’ 1858 book The Aquarian Naturalist)? No, neither would do. The former word, despite (arguably) the first public aquarium in the United States being called an “Aquarial Hall,” did not, as Mellen tells us, “survive long enough to get into the dictionaries.” The latter word had the problem of being confused with a religious sect, whose third century members were called Aquarii (and they did not tend fishes).
Mellen goes on to anchor the origin of the term “aquarist” to her own institution—the New York Aquarium. “Many years ago at the New York Aquarium,” she writes, “the word aquarist was selected as being less awkward than aquariist, which was regarded as technically the better word.” Mellen continues, “The word, strange to say, is ignored by dictionary makers, but it is now commonly used throughout the United States, not only in public aquariums and by private individuals engaged in the rearing of tropical toy fishes—they also call themselves fish fans—but by the proprietors of pet shops and goldfish farms. It reached England long ago and superseded the word aquarian.”
So there you have it—the origin of the word “aquarist” according to Ida Mellen.
Rest assured that there are many other nuggets of linguistic goodness in Mellen’s article. For example, was she correct in saying “not only in public aquariums” as opposed to “not only in public aquaria”? She answers for that later in the article. And what of the many terms “fish fans” use amongst themselves—terms “known to all amateur and professional aquarists” like “mouth breeders,” “live bearers,” “tropicals,” “natives,” “pigmies,” “toy fishes,” “air breathers,” “labyrinth fishes,” “a tropical collection,” “salt water tropicals,” “fresh-water tropicals,” etc., etc., etc.?
And did you know that “[b]y some inexplicable anomaly, when the words fresh-water and salt water are used as compound adjectives, only the former is hyphenated”? That’s what Mellen says.
More to come on this front, but for now, Aquarists, I must return to author review.