A name by many other fish

Will the real bass wave your pectoral fin!

The fish—scores of them, all vaguely similar in appearance—didn’t move except for the rhythmic opening and closing of their gill covers. They knew what most people don’t know: The term “bass” is an artifice of the human imagination, not a real thing. Except in Germany where it’s spelled “barsch” and means “perch.”

Behold the elegant simplicity of ichthys, the Christian bass.

The fish we Americans call “bass” do not fall into any kind of biologically cohesive group, except that most of them follow the general architectural plan of ichthys, the Christian symbol of bumper sticker notoriety. Its regular and symmetrical shape are what first come to mind when we think “fish.”

When the first Europeans arriving in America encountered these ichthys-shaped fishes, they liked what they saw and often named them “bass.” One of the few positive things Capt. John Smith wrote in his otherwise downbeat account New England was, “[T]here hath beene taken one thousand Bases at a draught. . .” What were these “Bases?” There’s no way of knowing, although the name he chose for them at least tells us they weren’t eels.

Giant of the bass world.
The might-have-been Manchurian bass.

How about the Manchurian bass (Channidae)? Unfortunately it doesn’t exist, because by the time fishermen saw through the vilification campaign waged against it by government wildlife agencies and the media, the name “snakehead” was already well established.

So if you see a fish that you like, and you don’t know what it is, just call it a bass. Who’s to say you’re wrong?

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