This will be a mini-disquisition on fish terminology, focusing on one particular species.
Reader hanmeng, after seeing a reference to bàyú 鲅鱼 (a kind of fish — discussion below) in the opening scene of the 32nd episode of " Méndì" 门第 ("family status; pedigree; ancestry; lineage; families related by marriage equal in social status" — title of a popular TV drama series), googled to find what the equivalent word is in English, and was directed to Baidu (a search engine for Chinese-language websites), where they render it as "Japanesespanishmack—erel".
Obviously an error; how could it be called "Japanese Spanish" anything?
[VHM: When I queried hanmeng what he meant by this, he replied, "I meant offhand I had thought any given item should either be Japanese or Spanish but not 'Japanese Spanish'. Although in a different context I am sure I could believe in, for instance, a Japanese Spanish professor.]
In fact not only is there such a fish as the "Japanese Spanish Mackerel", the misprint (with or without the missing space) is found several other places. Apparently it started from this paper (see the entry in the bibliography under Kishida, T., K. Ueda and K. Takao at the bottom left column of p. 94.)
[VHM: I don't see anything wrong with this entry, nor with the previous one, both of which make reference to "Japanese Spanish mackerel", unless hanmeng considers that itself to be a mistake -- but see below for more on this name.]
I'd have thought the Japanese would know better, but there's at least one Japanese page that apparently also uses baidu.
[VHM: hanmeng's claim here seems to be valid, since this page (about 2/3rds of the way down) copies " Japanesespanishmack-erel" in the middle of a line, where the hyphen is not necessary.]
Since the dash in "Japanesespanishmack—erel" in the Baidu article occurs at the end of a line, it is obvious that the Baidu editors meant that to be "Japanesespanishmackerel" (in his message to me, hanmeng referred to that as a "ghost-word"). Unpacking "Japanesespanishmackerel", whoever is responsible for that monstrosity must have been intending to write "Japanese Spanish mackerel", but as hanmeng intimates, would that make any sense?
Let's start with the usual bilingual dictionary entry, which is:
bàyú 鲅鱼 ("Spanish mackerel" [Google translate, Baidu Fanyi, Bing Translator, ABC Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary, Oxford Chinese Dictionary]).
Citing a number of correspondents who are expert Chinese and Japanese lexicographers or language teachers, and one who is the world's authority on Japanese fish markets, we will hone in on "Japanese Spanish mackerel" to determine whether it is a "ghost-word" or not, and ultimately — if possible — to decide what is the most accurate translation for bàyú 鲅鱼. I began by asking them why the Japanese write the name of the fish in katakana (sawara サワラ), rather than in kanji (鰆), and if they had any comments ready to hand about this fish and terminology relating to it.
I think this is the standard form, but fish names are incredibly variegated, not just in Japan but throughout the world — partly because fishing is highly seasonal and the same fish may be caught in many different locations at different times, fish names proliferate.
I am not certain, but I imagine that most Japanese consumers would not be able to read this kanji. A popular motif in sushi restaurants are teacups and towels that have 50-60 fish kanji on them and little hiragana (furigana) tags. Most people in my experience only recognize about 1/3 of them.
So, in a fish monger's stall, I would expect to see sawara with a label using hiragana, or maybe the kanji plus hiragana. As for katakana, it would be scientific usage. That is, in the biological sciences in Japan, katakana is used for scientific names of species, subspecies, etc.
From Nathan Hopson:
Spanish mackerel is サワラ (鰆) in Japanese. As the kanji suggests, it's used as a spring seasonal word (季語) in poetry, both alone and in compounds like 鰆東風 (さわらごち), a (spring) wind that blows during the サワラ fishing season. There are several etymological hypotheses for the derivation of サワラ, but 狭腹 (さはら [VHM: "narrow belly"]) seems most likely to me.
Alternative kanji include:
(Sorry, small graphics pasted from source.)
Oh, and they're delicious. One of my favorite lunches at the university cafeterias in Japan was a set with sawara braised (?) in miso.
[VHM: 鰆 consists of 鱼 ("fish", the radical / semantophore) and 春 ("spring", the phonophore, but in this case also conveying secondary semantic significance)]
From Hiroko Sherry:
The kanji consisting of fish +spring, is the standard. 国語審議会（？）(maybe 動物学会／植物学会）[VHM: these are the National Language Council, the Zoological Society, and the Botanical Soceity] has decided to use katakana for animal/plants names. (I understand that they adopted this system over 50 years ago.) I am just guessing here, but probably because kanji names have variation, just like your list shows. Besides, if they are written in katakana, they stand out in the kanji+hiragana sequence. Some Japanese hate this system because katakana destroys the images/feelings which kanji names resonate. However, I think this way of visual presentation probably helps us to get the information from the sentences faster. Not good for literature, but good for science, I guess.
From Richard Warmington:
Katakana are used for other purposes than just writing loanwords. For example (from Wikipedia):
Technical and scientific terms, such as the names of animal and plant species and minerals, are also commonly written in katakana. Homo sapiens (ホモ・サピエンス Homo sapiensu?), as a species, is written ヒト (hito), rather than its kanji 人.
The Japanese Wikipedia article for "rabbit" is titled ウサギ (katakana), and searches for "usagi" written in hiragana or kanji are redirected to the article with its title written in katakana:
I would add that the use of katakana for species names is not limited to technical writing. It commonly appears in everyday usage.
"Speaking of pets, why are rabbits so cute?"
(This quote from a blog also illustrates the use of katakana for emphasis (similar to the way italics are used in English) – in this case, of the word "kawaii" (cute) – and for the rendering of a loanword, "petto" (pet) (also similar to the way italics are used in English to render loanwords.))
Apart from the issue of katakana usage, the kanji that is usually indicated in Japanese dictionaries for this fish (鰆) is not included among the common use (常用) kanji, and that would be another reason not to write the name of the fish in kanji, I presume.
From Jim Breen:
The kanji used is 鰆, which has the "kun" reading of さわら (sawara).
As commonly occurs with the names of plants, animals, etc. this is often written in katakana, hence the サワラ.
A very popular fish in Japan – common in the Inland Sea and considered very tasty.
Invariably called さわら. The generic term for mackerel is さば (saba), but this is not used for the (Japanese) Spanish mackerel as it's usually applied to the "chub" mackerel (Scomber japonicus).
You can't predict whether the kanji, katakana or hiragana written forms of these critters will be used. In this case, it seems to be usually in hiragana, which in the Google n-grams leads サワラ by about 2:1. The kanji form is used quite often too. The only other use I can see of the kanji is in the name of the "wahoo" (kamasusawara) which is nothing like as common. It has the kanji forms of 叺鰆 and 梭子魚鰆 but is invariably written カマスサワラ.
You sent some other kanji used for mackerel. The only ones I know are: 鯖 – saba さば
and 鯵/鰺 – aji – あじ horse mackerel. Also very common and popular.
From Michael Carr:
Kana are used because 鰆 is not in the jōyō kanji [ "regular-use Chinese characters"]. I’ve only seen it used in sushiya [寿司屋 "sushi shops"].
Here are the low-hanging fruit links (from Wikipedia/Wiktionary):
Not in Wiktionary:
The Chinese dragon names article mentions lots of fish.
I wrote a paper in grad school about the Erya chapter on fish names, which was a trial of how to proceed with my dissertation on the botanical name chapters, but it wasn't publishable.
See also Michael Carr, "Tiao-Fish through Chinese Dictionaries", Sino-Platonic Papers, 40 (September, 1993), 68 pages.
Chinese character variants for bà 鲅 are given here.
From this article and other sources, we know that it really is called Japanese Spanish mackerel, that its scientific name is Scomberomorus niphonius, and that it is also known as the Japanese seerfish (sometimes written as searfish.
According to Wikipedia, there's a whole biological tribe of Spanish mackerels, including the Atlantic Spanish mackerel, the Monterrey Spanish mackerel, the narrow-barred Spanish mackerel, the West African Spanish mackerel, and the Serra Spanish mackerel, and still many more species that don't have "Spanish" in the name, even though they're members of the "Spanish mackerel" tribe.
Finally, I wish to report a strange phenomenon that I noticed once when checking the frequency of the characters in a fairly large set. I forget whether the magnitude of the set was in the 10,000 or 20,000 range. In any event, there were far more characters in the set than anyone could possibly remember or know. What was striking to me was the fact that an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of characters having extremely low frequency, and often a large and cumbersome quantity of strokes, were names of fish! Having done all the research necessary for this post, I have come to the conclusion that characters for the names of fish are often arcane, arbitrary, and recognized by very few people. What matters is the spoken pronunciation of the names, since the people who most often deal with fish (fishermen, fishmongers, housewives, and so forth) are apt to have low levels of hanzi / kanji literacy. Furthermore, fish terms vary greatly by region, even within the same language (e.g., Japanese, Mandarin), and, as one of the experts cited above pointed out, even by season.
[Hearty thanks to everyone quoted in this post]