Jewfish are gargantuan groupers. They have flaky filets. They have fins and scales. They're kosher.

But their name isn't. At least not with one group of scientists who successfully petitioned to have the fish's name changed this spring.

"We've been hearing complaints since way back into the '60s," said Dr. Joe Nelson, chair of the Names of Fishes Committee, which has officially changed the common name of the Epinephelus itajara— or jewfish — to goliath grouper. "I have records of correspondence. People would write to the committee greatly offended that we have a fish named jewfish. I would politely say that it is not used in an offensive way."

Nelson said the committee, a joint body of the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, has good reason not to routinely change the common — non-Latin — names of fishes.

"One of the most basic principles we have in common names is the principle of stability. You don't go around changing names because they're inappropriate," he said.

The committee's basic guidelines point out that names must be in good taste and can't be offensive. However, they generally must offend more than one person, Nelson said.

"There is clearly an overwhelming amount of evidence that (jewfish) is anti-Semitic in origin. It is offensive to many people," said Dr. Gary Grossman, professor of fish ecology at the University of Georgia, "The response (to a name-change petition) was very strong. People that are not familiar with this fish were shocked that this was still its common name."

Grossman and more than 40 other scientists and supporters submitted their petition to the names committee in December, a month before the committee finalized its newest volume of common names. The reference book is published every 10 years and is due in print by the end of 2001. The book's publication was the main reason Grossman acted when he did.

Grossman also pointed out a precedent: squawfish. The name was changed to pikeminnow in 1998 because a group of native Americans felt it was derogatory toward women.

"I thought: How can they change squawfish and not change jewfish?" Grossman said. "This doesn't blur the line. This is the name of a religion. This is not a euphemism or a word that has another meaning. This doesn't create a slippery slope."

Grossman contacted committee members and shared some of the many negative emails he received about the name from eminent scientists. He presented historical arguments contained in a 1996 article published in the Tropical Fish Hobbyist headlined: The Trouble with "Jewfish" or What's in a Name?

The article, written by Richard G. Gould and James W. Atz, states in the first paragraph: "Jewfish is a controversial name. Whenever it is discussed, its origin is inevitably questioned."

The authors cite sources that date the name to 17th century Jamaica. Those sources claim the name was penned because the fish had both fins and scales and was thus kosher and eaten by Jamaican Jews.

The article then states: "We don't think that's the reason at all."

Other sources point to anti-Semitic attitudes in Jamaica — and throughout the world — during that time, which may have spawned "jewfish" to describe the salted version of fresh giant grouper meat. The salted meat would be less palatable, but was commonly consumed by Jews.

Many other fishes around the world are also called jewfish, including some catfish in Australia, the article stated. But in the United States, the jewfish has had proper scientific sanction.

Not anymore. The names committee settled on goliath grouper.

"I became preoccupied for a while considering why" the fish was named jewfish, Nelson said. "In the end, it was the fact that reputable people — many of them scientists — to them it was offensive. To me and the committee that was enough."

Nelson quickly pointed out that the fish is not named after the biblical Philistine Goliath who was slain by David. This grouper has a lowercase name; goliath meaning large.

"We know people have said they will continue using jewfish for the rest of their lives," he said. "All we can say is that as an organization of professional people, we're not blessing it."

The other question Nelson keeps hearing: Will this start a renaming revolution?

"People are saying this is the tip of the iceberg. What about the Irish lord? The Spanish mackerel, the black grouper, the hagfish, the whitefish?... No, it's not a domino effect... We know of no other name that comes anywhere close."

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