Chicken Tuesday: Chicken-Bird Sandwich?

Seeing as it’s Tuesday, I’ve beem putting together some new chicken recipe ideas to share with you. In the meantime, I just happened to see this posted online today and it made me chuckle.

That got me to thinking – “Why DO people say tuna fish sandwich and not just tuna sandwich?”

Of course, I had to go do some research…


I found an interesting reference to “tuna fish” being a pleonastic phrase on Wikipedia (here’s an excerpt):

Pleonasm is the use of more words or word-parts than is necessary for clear expression: examples are black darkness, or burning fire. Such redundancy is, by traditional rhetorical criteria, a manifestation of tautology.

Further, regarding it being an idiomatic expression:

Some pleonastic phrases are part of a language’s idiom, like “tuna fish” and “safe haven” in English. They are so common that their use is unremarkable, although in many cases the redundancy can be dropped with no loss of meaning.

Word Origin

Here’s a definition from a word origin dictionary – Online Etymology Dictionary:

tuna (n.) 1881, from American Spanish (California) tuna, from Spanish atun, from Arabic tun, from Latin thunnus “tunny” (see tunny).

Online Forums

People on the web had all kinds of interesting input:

Some posters had some good contributions on a forum called – The Straight Dope:

The 1919 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) listed tuna as a California variant on tunny (probably influenced by Mexican Spanish). In the newer OED, the first reference is to “tuna,” in quotes, describing the fish in an 1881 scientific discussion. The first reference to “tuna fish” occurs in 1919, in a book or magazine article describing low-cost, nutritious meals.


WAG: Salmon, anchovies, sprat, herring, cod, all were commercially canned or otherwise preserved for “off-the shelf” sale since the turn of the century, and were recognizable to the primarily European communities in urban America, while poorer country folk would get sacalait, catfish, whatever at the market, fresh. When tuna was first widely distributed, people probably said “huh?” and it was “marketed” as tuna [as opposed to some other] fish: accent not on variety of tuna, but on the heretofore little known variety of fish.

Someone on Yahoo Answers provided this commentary:

The most convincing explanation I’ve heard is that in the early 1900’s there was a sardine shortage, so fish canneries started canning tuna instead. Because they thought Americans would be unfamiliar with what the word “tuna” might mean, they added the “fish” to it and it stuck. Before this time, tuna was not on the American menu, so it’s a good story.

Finally, we turn to the Dictionary:

tu•na1 (ˈtu nə, ˈtyu-)  n., pl. (esp. collectively) -na, (esp. for kinds or species) -nas.

  1. any of several large marine food and game fishes of the family Scombridae, including the albacore, bluefin tuna, and yellowfin tuna.
  2. any of various related fishes.
  3. Also called tu′na fish`. the flesh of the tuna, used as food.

[1880–85, Amer.; < American Spanish, variant of Sp atún < Arabic al the + tūn < Greek thýnnos tunny]

tu•na2 (ˈtu nə, ˈtyu-)  n., pl. -nas.

  1. any of various prickly pears, esp. either of two erect, treelike species, Opuntia tuna or O. ficus-indica, of Mexico, bearing a sweet, edible fruit.
  2. the fruit of these plants.

[1545–55; < Sp < Taino]

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved

Fish versus Fruit

So it would seem that in addition to the “tuna fish” we are more familiar with, there is also “tuna fruit“. I can see how that might cause some confusion… especially (it would seem) for those speaking Mexican Spanish (perhaps in California).

Opuntia ficus-indica (Tuna Fruit)
Opuntia ficus-indica (Tuna Fruit) – species of cactus, domesticated crop plant in arid and semiarid parts of the world. possibly native to Mexico. Some common English names (plant/fruit): Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, cactus pear and prickly pear.

Which explanation seems most plausible to you?

I often tend to lean towards liking the explanations based on stories and anecdotes, but the likelihood is that the term “tuna fish” came about when trying to ensure that one would not be accidentally eating a “tuna fruit” sandwich!

I don’t know about you, but I find the origins of words and sayings quite fascinating… even though sometimes they can end up being more mired in folklore than fact!

Personally, I like to eat a tuna sandwich – not “tuna fish” (or chicken-bird for that matter)!

How about you? What do you call a sandwich made with tuna? Can you think of any other phrases for foods or everyday items that you use that are actually a bit redundant?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharon P. says:

    Just an FYI , there is a cactus in Jamaica called a Tuna Cactus! you can soak it in water and it has healing qualities.

    1. TinaChase says:

      Interesting Sharon! I wonder if it’s the same plant, since they mention it being like a prickly pear. I will have to search for some images of the tuna cactus and tuna fruit plant and compare them…

      1. TinaChase says:

        Hi Sharon, I did some googling and I’ve updated my post with some information and a photo from Wikipedia. Maybe you can see if it looks the same as the Tuna Cactus you have in Jamaica….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s