tuna, take 2

The previous post discussed the tuna that English took from Spanish as the name of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, so it’s natural enough to wonder about the other tuna in English, the one for the type of fish that Spanish calls atún. Just like the cactus-related tuna, the one for the fish also passed from Spanish to English, though this time with a change in form, with the a getting transferred from the beginning of the word to its end. And just as with the name of the cactus fruit, Spanish took the name of the fish from another language, but this time it was from Arabic at-tūn, where the first part of the term is an assimilated form of the Arabic definite article.

Unlike the previous case, though, the language from which Spanish borrowed wasn’t the originator or even the first borrower of the word: Arabic had gotten it from Latin thunnus, which the Romans had taken from Greek thunnos. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Latin word gave rise to Old Provençal ton, which in turn generated French thon and Italian tonno. Those are the sources of the alternate English form tunny, which is used primarily in Britain.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 12, 2015 @ 08:37:22

    I’ve come across “tunny” just occasionally, and although I understood from the context that it meant “fish,” I never went beyond that.

    I found this in the WIki: “The term tuna derives from thunnus, the Middle Latin form of the Ancient Greek θύννος (thýnnos), which is derived from θύνω (thýnō), “rush, dart along.” I found several articles confirming that the tuna is built for speed. The yellowfin variety can cruise at 40-45 mph. It seems the first of the tuna’s two dorsal fins can be laid flat, into a sort of groove in its body, to decrease resistance as it moves through the water.

    I don’t think your prickly flounder moves so quickly!


  2. Pamela Breitberg
    Feb 12, 2015 @ 18:52:13

    I learned of the cactus tuna recently from my Mexican students. Language is interesting….and confusing.


  3. Maria F.
    Jan 03, 2016 @ 08:24:11

    Another meaning I was interested in adding was the ‘tuna’ that is used as a musical group in Spain to celebrate festivities. Last night I shared this meaning with another blogger when we were sharing the origin of some Christmas music.

    In P.R. we have these ‘tunas’ also, who are musical groups that sing during Christmas. “The name TUNA may come from French roi de Thunes “king of Tunis”, a title used by leaders of vagabonds. But there is also a legend of a real King of Tunis, known for his love to music and party that usually liked to walk around the streets at night playing and singing. That explains why the term roi de Thunes was applied.”-

    It is of my opinion that this word derived from ’Tunis’ (in this musical context), the capital of ‘Tunicia’, and a legendary folk legend which influenced Spain when it was under Moorish control.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 03, 2016 @ 09:46:52

      The musical tuna was new to me. The DRAE at


      goes with the French explanation, as does Joan Corominas in his etymological dictionary of Spanish, in which he cites the French use of the term as far back as the year 1427.


      • Maria F.
        Jan 03, 2016 @ 09:51:18

        It was new to me also, until I decided to share it with Linda in her blog last night. I always knew they were called ‘tunas’ but since they only sing at Christmas time here, I couldn’t remember it when you said it was Taino.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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