Q: I recently returned from a vacation in Newfoundland, where I enjoyed the regional dish of “cod tongue.” Or should it be “cod’s tongue”? Or maybe “cods’ tongues”? I suspect that “cod” in “cod tongue” is an adjective (telling us what kind of tongue), not a noun (telling us whose tongue).
A: The word “cod” in “cod tongue” is an attributive noun, a noun that acts as an adjective. It’s attributive because the attributes associated with “cod” are applied to “tongue.”
All three of the versions you mention—“cod tongue,” “cod’s tongue,” and “cods’ tongues”—are legitimate, though “cod tongues” appears to be the most common way of referring to the dish, according to online searches.
Your question led us to ask one of our own: Do fish have tongues?
Yes, we’ve learned, most fish do have tongues. The tongue of a fish is formed from a fold in the floor of the mouth, according to an FAQ on the website of the Australian Museum.
However, fish tongues aren’t much like ours. Fish use their tongue muscles to thrust food backward while mammals use the tongue to position food for grinding, according to a study by researchers at Brown University.
We couldn’t find the term “cod tongues” (or its variants) in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.
A Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines the term as “the tongue or hyoid apparatus of the cod-fish, much prized for its glutinous jelly-like consistency and delicate flavour when lightly fried.” (The hyoid bone anchors the tongue.)
The term “cod tongues” has been around since at least the 18th century. The earliest citation in the Newfoundland dictionary is from a 1771 entry in the journal of George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer in Newfoundland and Labrador:
“In the morning Condon came up and brought some cod tongues and sounds.” (The dictionary defines “sound” as the “’swimming bladder of certain fish.”)
In its entry for “tongue,” the dictionary has several examples of the word used in the sense we’re talking about, including this one from the September 1975 issue of The Rounder, a Newfoundland magazine:
“Best known is the tongue, much prized in certain circles for its jellylike consistency. Young children in many fishing communities make extra pocket money by cutting out the tongues and selling them by the dozen, door to door.”
In case you’re interested, we came across a video on a Norwegian website that shows young fishermen cutting the tongues out of cod.
The noun “cod” first showed up in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the origin of the word is uncertain.
Interestingly, it doesn’t appear in any other language and it’s not related to the name for the fish in classical Greek (gados) or zoological Latin (gadus).
The OED says it’s been suggested that the name might come from cod, an Old English term for a pouch, perhaps because of the baglike appearance of the fish. (John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this theory is not all that convincing.)
We’ll end with an excerpt from a Nov. 14, 1825, letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge, who was living in Boston:
“We should be very glad occasionally to get small supplies of the fine dumb cod-fish to be had at Boston, and also of the tongues and sounds of the cod.”