Daily Archives: February 8, 2009


A word that may seem to have surfaced from some eon-old depths, with its odd form and atavistic œ digraph. Faced with it, do you even know what to do with it? Does it come from Greek or Latin? (Greek, in fact, but by way of Latin, hence the c‘s rather than k‘s and the œ rather than oi.) Should the c be [k] or [s]? Choose the latter – it begins with the sound of sea, as does the story of its object. The two c‘s, œ and e may seem like four fins, if the front is the h. One of the c‘s retains the ancient sound, while the other has shifted to the modern (the vowels are all Anglicized). Its object is a large carnivorous fish that had been thought to have been extinct for 100 million years or so. Then, in 1938, an amateur ichthyologist happened to notice one in some by-catch on the South African coast. In fact, Comoros islanders had known about it for years and given it the name gombessa, but they didn’t care much about it because it wasn’t good eating. More recently (1997), a honeymooning marine biologist happened to notice one in an Indonesian market, thousands of kilometres from what had been thought to be the only modern habitat of the cœlecanth. So this deep-blue reclusive troglodytic human-sized fish with very sensitive eyes and a hollow spine (Greek koilos “hollow” and akantha “spine”) not only has made its name a byword for some living fossil but may yet also serve as metaphor for something that shows up when and where you had no reason to expect it (the canth resembling an abruptly aborted can’t happen) – or perhaps for something that the locals shrug off while scientists, if and when they “discover” it, are gobsmacked.