Sometimes, following caprice, I just swim through the sediment of the Oxford English Dictionary feeling for strange words that I would have no reason to encounter in my daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly life. Extend a tentative tendril here, a probing appendage there; see what words emerge when you stir up the lexical mud of centuries. Will you get some garnet from the gentry? Or just turn up grunge? What do you get as a lexical bottom-feeder?


You get gurnettier and gurnettier sometimes, but you don’t get gurnettier; you just get gurnetty, which implies the comparative. It implies it because it’s an adjective form. As the OED explains, gurnetty means “Resembling a gurnard.”

So now we have two questions: What is a gurnard, and Why is this word not gurnardy?

First: a gurnard is a bottom-feeding fish. Oh, come on, like you didn’t see that coming with all the hints dropping around you like… um, like fish poop falling to the ocean floor, I guess. A gurnard has big fins, a big head, big eyes, and three appendages hanging down below its – not neck, but where that would be – that feel for foodstuffs in the muck. It probably comes from French grognard ‘grumbler, grunter’.

It also has some alternate forms in English; the one that is still current is gurnet. That undoubtedly came through predictable English sound changes and reductions – take some illiterate British fishermen and give them gurnard and you might yet net gurnet. Not exactly a gem, but not exactly the gentry, and not really urgent, either.

And if you do net a gurnet? Apparently they’re often tossed away as a bycatch, but increasingly they are being kept, as they have (per the BBC) “firm white flesh that holds together well in cooking.” They don’t have a lot of flavour, though. So they’re best in stews and such like.

So there it is. You come for lexical enlightenment, you get a tasteless (but resilient) bottom-feeder. ’Twas ever thus.

One response to “gurnetty

  1. Mind Experiments

    I have often seen information theory in action – after reading about a word, it somehow keeps popping up unexpectedly and will never be overlooked again. Thanks for sharing.

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