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Starfish or Sea Star?

By Mark Carnall, on 10 June 2011

Last week a visitor asked whether starfish should be called starfish or sea stars. At the Grant Museum our asteroideans are labeled as starfish. Apparently, the confusing name is causing children and adults to identify starfish as fish rather than as echinoderms. Every now and then we get similar enquiries from visitors and students that arise when scientific pedantry meets commonly used names. For another example see our colleague from the Horniman Museum, Paolo Viscardi, clarify for once and for all that Apes are Monkeys, so deal with it.

A label from the Grant Museum that says that flying lemures are not lemurs and cannot fly

So starfish or sea stars? Starfish are called sea stars or stars of the sea in many European languages including Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Swedish. Starfish are a group of animals that make up the phylum echinodermata and their extant relatives are all named after what they look like; sea cucumbers, sea lilies and sea urchins (urchin from the Middle English meaning hedgehog). Pedants would point out that these names are technically incorrect too but I guess the problem with starfish is that you’re likely to find starfish in the same habitat as fish fish, whereas it would indeed be a lost cucumber or street child found alongside sea cucumbers or sea urchins. By the same token jellyfish, silverfish and crayfish aren’t fish either. Other names are misleading, flying lemurs don’t fly and aren’t lemurs, sea spiders aren’t spiders and horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs. Perhaps we should rename all of those too. I’ve no idea how the continent produces any competent zoologists at all because many animal names are very descriptive in other languages with fewer discrete names for animals. In Dutch for example, a coypu is called a beaver-rat, hippopotamuses are called Nile-horse and bats are called flying mice. English common names also create problems when there’s more than one of the thing you are wanting to describe. Should it be Portugese men-of-war or Portugese man-of-wars? Octopuses, octopi or octopodes? Platypuses, platypus or platypi?

Some scientists might call for getting rid of common names altogether. Bug is often used to describe a whole host of creatures that aren’t true bugs, insects in the order hemiptera, even by the Natural History Museum it seems. The name minibeasts is also a polyphyletic group. However, scientific names often aren’t sacrosanct, with tens of millions of biological names scientists themselves occasionally slip in rude sounding words, names with humurous double meanings and even references to ex-girlfriends (the excellent Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature lists them all, my particular favourite is the species name for the blue whale which could mean muscular or little mouse).

A label for a brain coral from the grant museum of zoology ucl that reads this is not a brain

As for sea stars vs starfish I think that ultimately, it doesn’t matter and in my mind pedantically correcting people on the technical names and nature for things is the worst kind of science communication. It is eltitist and a form of “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-I-know-something-that-you-don’t-know” that alienates people who are less well informed. This is the kind of gobbledygook and jargon that the plain english campaign is trying to eradicate. Does this mean that future generations will be brought up ignorant? Of course not but if I have ten minutes talking to a museum visitor about an object I’d prefer to use it talking about more interesting things than whether it is or isn’t called this or that when we both know the thing we’re talking about anyway.

33 Responses to “Starfish or Sea Star?”

  • 1
    Debi Linton wrote on 10 June 2011:

    Mark, I agree SO MUCH. People where I work are insisting we use ‘sea stars’ and ‘sea jellies’ because either of them are fish. But it’s apparently OK to use ‘sea horses’ for a particular brand of pipefish, even thought they’re not horses.

    It doesn’t matter at all. I just want to talk about the animals.

  • 2
    Mark Carnall wrote on 10 June 2011:

    Debi, there’s quite a few funny blog posts on the exact same thing. My favourite one points out that not only are starfish nothing like stars but that everything that is ‘star-shaped’ doesn’t actually resemble what a star looks like.

    Perhaps astronomers should rename stars.

  • 3
    Seb PW wrote on 14 June 2011:

    Well that’s clear-up a few misunderstandings

    I sympathise with the difficulty you have, especially when you have groups of inquisitive kids. I’m sure explaining the concepts of convergent evolution, nomenclature and phylogenetics, recent changes due to molecular sequencing and bar-coding can be tricky!

    Good luck with that.

  • 4
    John Nudds wrote on 16 June 2011:

    So, what do they think about cuttlefish…or shellfish… It didn’t confuse us as children, so what’s different nowadays ? That’s what they’re called – period !

    PS – this is, of couse, why Linnaeus developed binomial nomenclature. So anyone who is confused by common names can simply learn the latin ones !!!

  • 5
    John Nudds wrote on 17 June 2011:

    …and for that matter, what about sea cows, sea lillies, sea anemones, sea gooseberries, sea lions, sea cucumbers etc etc etc !!!!

  • 6
    Debra wrote on 26 June 2011:

    I went on a tour of tide pools one time and the guide called starfish sea stars. I just couldn’t bring myself to call them that as the name starfish was ingrained in me since I was a child. So the fact that many other plants and animals are “misnamed” gives me a sigh of relief. I will call them starfish and not feel ignorant for doing so. Thanks for the excellent article.

  • 7
    UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Does pickling animals get your goat? wrote on 2 September 2011:

    […] The point he is making is that saying “stuffed” or “pickled” downplays the level of curatorial skill involved in preparing such specimens, which is certainly significant. It denigrates the whole sector and belittles the museums and their objects. In a field that is, thankfully, becoming ever-increasingly professionalised, are natural history museum staff disrespected by such candid terminology? Or, alternatively, is it just long-winded jargon, of the type that Mark himself campaigned against in a previous blog. […]

  • 8
    UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Hollywood Animals wrote on 14 September 2011:

    […] in society and conveniently in museums we don’t have to work so hard to explain exactly what a starfish is and isn’t. One of the most effective way we work with specimens is to get people to identify […]

  • 9
    Ry @ Scene Makeup wrote on 2 December 2011:

    I agree with Mark on the fact that astronomers should rename “stars” to something else. Originally, a star was classified as an object of more than 5 points, but I am guessing this is the influence of the modern world.

  • 10
    Matt Rogen wrote on 7 December 2011:

    I’ve always known them as star fish and I see no reason to change that!

    It’s john Nudds commented about “sea cows, sea lillies, sea anemones, sea gooseberries, sea lions and sea cucumbers”!! Do we really need to change all these too??!!??

    A star fish is a star fish and that’s that!

  • 11
    Store wrote on 1 March 2012:

    Not the most interesting debate but since everybody has always called them starfish I think it would be best to keep calling them starfishes…
    by the way in france it’s called “étoile de mer” which means sea star…

  • 12
    Design wrote on 28 March 2012:

    Marine scientists have taken the responsabality to replace the beloved starfish’s common name with « sea star » . the conclusion is that they don’t consider starfish as fish but as echinoderm,because of its close relation to sea urchins and sand dollars. In society , however, people do not lose time to explain what a starfish is and is not . It doesn’t matter how we call it, What is important is to help people to be able to identify a starfish. For those who never heard about , Sea stars are purely marine animals.

  • 13
    ferry to France wrote on 4 May 2012:

    starfish or sea star 2different names for the same, we can close the debate by saying that a starfish is also a sea star,both means the same.

  • 14
    James wrote on 3 July 2012:

    Biologically it is not considered as a fish in fact as echinoderm. So it shouldn’t be called as starfish. But as most of the people know it as starfish then what is wrong in that. You can call it starfish or sea star it will not mind i guess. 😛

  • 15
    Garcia wrote on 28 August 2012:

    HaHaHa its very funny conversation over here. Starfish or SeaStar whatever I like the discussion. In my opinion I will call it StarFish as most of people know it by this name.

  • 16
    Alexandra wrote on 7 September 2012:

    Yes Gracia you are absolutely right its so funny and I am completely agree with you on name, it should be called as StarFish as nearly every call it as StarFish. I don’t know why these people are fighting on the topic calling it StarFish or StarSea.

  • 17
    True and False Animals | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 10 January 2014:

    […] create all kinds of problems for the pedantic as I’ve written about before when is comes to sea stars vs starfish. my colleague Jack Ashby wrote about when it comes to seals and sea lions. Consider also that a […]

  • 18
    Suzie wrote on 27 January 2014:

    I didn’t know urchin means hedgehog – it’s the same in Dutch, the linguistically delightful zee-egel, or my preferred spelling for laughs and confusion: zeeëgel.
    Rather predictably, also in German: Seeigel.

  • 19
    Postiindeksid wrote on 26 December 2014:

    Brain coral – this is not a brain – i loved that! 🙂

  • 20
    Heather Slabosz Art | Kate Maeve wrote on 17 January 2015:

    […] Heather has been painting with watercolors since she was 12 years old. I loved receiving her beautiful starfish print – did you know they have changed the name to sea star? […]

  • 21
    Google Cultural Institute and The Natural History Museum | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 19 September 2016:

    […] In which case, it’s largely useless. They want to know how penguins poop, whether its  starfish or sea star whether Portugese mens of wars are jellyfish or not. Search for penguin here and you get an egg, a […]

  • 22
    Liggliluff wrote on 26 December 2016:

    sea cows, sea lillies, sea anemones, sea gooseberries, sea lions, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, … and sea star (to keep the pattern going).

  • 23
    When is a giant octopus not a giant octopus? | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 27 May 2017:

    […] this where there is a conflation between common names and technical names creates nonsense like sea stars vs starfish and whether apes are monkeys or […]

  • 24
    Is the vampire squid an octopus or a squid? | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 14 November 2017:

    […] squid octopuses, squid or neither and can we change the flipping name in any case? Because like starfish vs sea stars it’s a waste of valuable attention time telling people what something isn’t rather than […]

  • 25
    preston wrote on 11 July 2018:

    A rose by any other name is still a rose
    and so is a starfish.
    There are much more important things to use all this energy on.

  • 26
    Sue wrote on 13 August 2018:

    A starfish isn’t a star either… so isn’t that also an incorrect name?

  • 27
    Starfish Are Dying Out Fast Along America's Pacific Coast – D-brief wrote on 30 January 2019:

    […] stars, also commonly called starfish, are among the most abundant animals along the U.S. West Coast. But now scientists say an epidemic […]

  • 28
    Starfish Are Dying Out Fast Along America’s Pacific Coast – Ottawa Business Daily wrote on 30 January 2019:

    […] stars, also commonly called starfish, are among the most abundant animals along the U.S. West Coast. But now scientists say an epidemic […]

  • 29
    Starfish Are Dying Out Fast Along America’s Pacific Coast – Smart Feed wrote on 31 January 2019:

    […] stars, also commonly called starfish, are among the most abundant animals along the U.S. West Coast. But now scientists say an epidemic […]

  • 30
    Qu'est-ce que Starfish Eat: Starfish Diet 101 – pisciculturemonde wrote on 10 August 2020:

    […] Bien qu’ils soient communément appelés étoiles de mer, certaines personnes demandent un changement de nom en étoile de mer (comme elles sont communément connues dans de nombreux pays européens ). […]

  • 31
    Peter wrote on 29 August 2020:

    The following also MUST be changed, too. And we must support the metaphor police; they are watching over us for our own good.

    crawfish — not actually fish
    crawdads — not always dads
    sea urchins — not actually urchins
    sand dollars — not actually dollars
    sea lions — not actually lions
    harbor seals — not always in a harbor
    sea horses — not actually horses
    sea hares — not actually hares
    sea cucumbers — not actually a dinner salad

    And what about the planets? Are they actually Roman gods? Isn’t earth’s surface 70% water and its core heavy metal—not actually earth?

    It’s a good thing we have oceanographers who know English better than experts with doctorates in English! We should be thankful they are banning metaphors! We can’t allow people to think abstractly.

  • 32
    What do Starfish Eat: Starfish Diet 101 – KyGuppies wrote on 21 June 2021:

    […] Whilst they are commonly known as starfish, some people are calling for a name change to sea star (as they are commonly known throughout many European counties). […]

  • 33
    What do Starfish Eat: Starfish Food regimen 101 – KyGuppies wrote on 22 June 2021:

    […] While they’re generally generally known as starfish, some persons are calling for a reputation change to sea star (as they are commonly known throughout many European counties). […]

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