Though the crawfish versus crayfish debate should have ended when Governor Earl K. Long proclaimed Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World when he signed House Concurrent Resolution No. 17 (pictured below) on March 9, 1959, I’m happy to see that mention of the Cajun Crustacean still provokes passion, debate and even fury.
Even before the mad governor settled the issue, the word crawfish had already won out over crayfish. During my research for Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, I learned that the word crawfish may have been first used to identify the decapod by nat- uralist Constantine
Rafinesque in 1817 in Florula Ludoviciana. Rafinesque, of French/German descent and born in Istanbul, was documenting American flora and fauna in the Ohio Valley (Jerry G. Walls – Crawfishes of Louisiana). Apparently, Rafinesque heard the word crawfish being used by the frontiersman of the Appalachians. (1817 — is that too early to begin using the the term hillybilly and/or redneck)?
When the Cajun French of the Atchafalaya River and Creole French of New Orleans began building the crawfish industry in the 1920s, they would have used the French word écrevisse (ay-cray-veese) for crawfish. Crayfish, when pronounced Cajun-style (cray-feesh) is much closer to the word écrevisse than crawfish.
Biologist T. H. Huxley used the term
crayfish in his scientific tome The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study
of Zoology (1880) and crayfish became generally accepted in scientific
writings. But due to the popularity of the Louisiana crawfish, crawfish is also
widely accepted as well.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. The French speakers of Louisiana
gave crawfish to the world. The French in Europe had a long tradition of
enjoying crawfish as a delicacy and brought their love of crawfish to
Louisiana. The English never liked the French much (see Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and they didn’t eat crawfish either, according to geographer and ethnologist Malcolm L. Comeaux in his Historical Development of the Crayfish Industry in the United States (1974) paper. Glen Pitre’s wonderful The Crawfish Book has a lively discussion of the etymology of the crawfish, but ironically, an American word is used to describe French Louisiana’s most famous delicacy.
Be that as it may, one thing is clear: the Cajun Crustacean is conquering the world one epicurean at a time.