The Public Eye

printed 08/02/2019

Although we like to think we’re all-inclusive around here, most of us do not speak Hawaiian.

While some people might be heard saying things that sound Hawaiian because the words seem to be all vowels, that’s generally the result of an extended happy hour: “Geh me a ta-hi, peaze.”

But given our limited knowledge of Hawaiian terms, I am constantly amazed at our fondness for, and eventual corruption of, the words mahi mahi, or mahi-mahi, or mahimahi, depending on which reference source you prefer.

It’s one name for the fish many of us know as dolphin, and translated into English it means “strong strong,” or, I suppose, strong-strong, or strongstrong.

I also assume it reflects the physical strength of the fish, rather than some other characteristic. After all, it is conceivable that a hot, sweaty day at sea followed by a fish-cleaning marathon back at the docks could lead to someone being referred to as mahi mahi in a less than a complimentary way.

“Whoa! Break out the Speedstick, my friend. You are seriously mahi mahi.”

And speaking of stinky, the sun-dried salted fish that’s still done in some places in the Pacific doesn’t just smell, it’s strong-strong. Some would even say it’s mahi-mahi-mahi.

But I digress, possibly because my early-morning coffee isn’t as mahi as it needs to be.

While I think mahi mahi is a perfectly good name under the right circumstances, its use on the East Coast was instituted not by anglers or whoever is in charge of naming conventions, but by restaurants that wanted to get people to eat it.

They guessed correctly, apparently, that customers wouldn’t order the seafood special if they even suspected that it included a nice slab of blackened Flipper.

So, rather than go with dorado, the Spanish word for dolphin, which is used on the West Coast, they went with mahi mahi because … because … it beats me, unless they thought dorado might be confusing as well.

“Will señor be having el dorado?”

“I’m not eating an old Cadillac, you idiota.”

Incidentally, menu marketing is also why we use monkfish instead of goosefish, because someone might look it up and discover that this delightful entrée is reminiscent of something that lived under your bed when you were five. Think 5,000 teeth with a giant head that looks to be half frog and half deflated soccer ball.

What really bothers me though is that we’re not even saying mahi mahi any more, but are abbreviating it to just “mahi” because it’s easier, even though it’s half the name and would be no different than saying, “I’ll have the ‘dolph,’” or “what’s the ‘fi’ of the day, or, heaven forbid, in the case of halibut, “I’ll have your ‘but.”

I will admit, however, that special names are sometimes better than the original when it comes to enticing people to buy what the market puts on the table.

“Slimehead, for instance, was changed to orange roughy, presumably because someone saw nothing but trouble if a customer were to say to the server, “What’s the fish of the day, slimehead?”

That could elicit what you might call a mahi, and possibly physical, response.

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