Think of what this word could be a name for. If we keep bells in a belfry, could not the lamp part of a lighthouse be a lamprey? Or perhaps it could be a smaller lit tabernacle whereat one may pray before the rays of a lambent flame… The tongue licks so softly at the start of saying it, and in the middle the lips make a little kiss (try it; it’s hard not do it – the lips meet for the [mp] and then have to round forward for the [ɹ]). So sweet, whether you say the final vowel as [i] (the dictionary’s official way) or [eɪ] (a spelling pronunciation).
But the actual thing it names… the actual creature named by this word… is the stuff of nightmares. Oh, sure, it’s basically an eel, a kind of sucker-fish, yeah, like a large marine leech. Sure. Have you seen a picture of this thing?
I’m not going to include a picture here, for one thing because I don’t have the rights to one and for another because I don’t want to ambush people with something like that. Never mind that it’s ugly, ugly, ugly (tubular, mottled, and scaleless). Its mouth is a ring with rows of teeth. It’s like a small version of the sandworms from Dune or the mouth of the sarlacc from Return of the Jedi. Or, more sensibly, they’re probably inspired by it. If your nerves are strong, Google it. Honestly, it’s a kind of Freudian nightmare, a phallus with a vagina dentata at the end. Gurkh.
It’s also a plague in the Great Lakes. Sea lampreys are native to the Atlantic coast but have invaded inland waters, and they can deplete native fish stocks quite rapidly. These things are basically aquatic vampires: they latch onto fish and suck the blood out of them. It is a fitting coincidence that Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, and lamprey anagrams to ympaler – so close. But of course they don’t impale. They puncture and suck.
Enough of that. How did this nasty sea vampire come to have such a pleasant name? It traces back through Old French to medieval Latin lampreda, which appears to have been a mutation of the synonymous lampetra, from lambere ‘lick’ and petra ‘stone’ – because they attached themselves to rocks. It happens that this is also the source of limpet. It’s not a hundred percent sure that it’s the true source for this word, though.
So what do you do with lampreys? In the Great Lakes, they’ve reduced them by 90% (the state regulating successful entrepreneurs out of business! Lampreys just happen to have a good business model! It’s shameful to interfere with the wisdom of the free market! err…). I’m not sure what the preferred method of catching and killing them is, but I do know what is a popular thing to do with them once they’re dead: eat them.
Yep. Especially in England (perhaps more in the past than now), lamprey pie is quite a thing. (Also in Game of Thrones.) A big one was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and another at her golden jubilee. King Henry I was said to have died of eating a surfeit of lampreys. They have, apparently, a deliciously meaty flavour. I suppose a diet of blood will do that. Mmm, sea vampire pie. Well, I’d try it. After all, it has such a lovely name…