Toss this word on the table in front of me and I would, without any prior knowledge of it, say “That’s Greek.” Easy-peasy: the eu is a good start – actually a “good” start, since eu is a Greek-derived prefix meaning “good”. So, now, what’s this lachon? It may remind me of Laocoon, the Trojan priest to whom is attributed the line “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” (that was actually Virgil who put those words in his mouth – “timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,” “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts”). But clearly it’s not related to him. The first hint of something fishy comes when I pull my Classical Greek dictionary off the shelf and find lakhanon “vegetables” and lakhos “lot, section; fate” but no lakhon.
Hm. So good vegetables, or good lot or good fate, or a good lot of vegetables, but with that morphological or inflectional change… no, I really don’t think so. Perhaps my Classical Greek dictionary isn’t comprehensive enough.
Well, no, it’s not… It doesn’t include words from Chinook.
Yes, this word only looks like Greek. It’s a sort of linguistic Trojan horse, faking one thing to get in the gate but actually being another. But, oh, heck, it has other forms too… It also fakes Irish, or fake Irish English: the same word has also shown up as hooligan. But not as in thug – just a homonym. And it is also seen as oolachon, oolichan, oulachon, ulchen, uthlechan, eurachon, eulakane, olakon… It’s quite mercurial, a mockingbird, a Morpheus, a trickster. By now you surely will have smelt a fish.
Well, a fish will shed some light on this: specifically, a candlefish – a small fish, a kind of smelt, that is so fatty during spawning that you can dry it, stick a wick in it, and burn it like a candle. Yes, really. It gets up to 15% body fat. That’s why its real Greek name is Thaleichthys pacificus – from thaleia “rich” and ichthus “fish” (the pacificus is not Greek-derived; it’s Latin and would mean “peaceful” except it really just means the fish lives in the Pacific Ocean – though it spawns in North American rivers). The very word thaleichthys seems thick, rich, spreadable or burnable, with all those fricatives. But why burn this fish’s fat (or grease, as it’s often called in this case) when you can eat it? It’s pretty much the colour and consistency of butter, and has been a staple of the diet of the First Nations of the western coast of North America since, well, forever, pretty much.
But will it remain so forever? Never mind changing tastes; this fish may be facing a less happy fate than that of, say, vegetables. It has experienced dramatic decreases in populations and is now a threatened species. Why? It’s still being figured out, but in such cases, the threats tend to come largely from things humans have brought in that certainly looked appealing and helpful – hydroelectric dams, large-scale fishing, logging, factories… they feed people and create jobs, yes, but will they produce bad long-term effects in exchange for good short-term effects? Sometimes you luck on and sometimes you luck out; some of the fabulous things we have brought through our gates might make a Trojan hoarse shouting “Beware”. Is the eulachon a canary in a coal mine, or perhaps a candlefish in the wind?
I am grateful to several colleagues from the Editors’ Association of Canada, whose discussion of this word tipped me off to it.