Crab feast

Some time ago a tv commercial went past me in the middle of the night: a commercial for a fast-food or casual-dining restaurant advertising specials on crab, a feast of snow crab and king crab. So I wondered about the crab in these two names, suspecting that we might be in a world where the referent of one or both of these names is unclear — where there are several distinct creatures called snow crab, say — and maybe also in a world where biologists claim that some things called crabs (or X crabs, for some specific X) are not in fact crabs at all, or aren’t “true crabs”. My suspicious are justified.

[Digression. I didn’t get any details from the commercial, which I wasn’t really attending to. I just jotted down “snow crab / king crab” for future reference (I didn’t even catch the restaurant’s name — might have been Red Lobster, but I’m not sure), expecting that when the commercial came around again, I’d be ready to pay attention to it and get more information. But I never saw it again. Just that once.

This has happened to me three or four times in recent months, always involving slick commercials aimed at a national audience, with some feature that looked like it might be of linguistic interest. On cable tv, in the middle of the night. But just once that I’ve caught. Meanwhile, other commercials come around several times a night for months and months, so I’ve seen them many hundreds of times — for instance, the pseudobulbar affect (PBA) commercial, apparently for Avanir Pharmaceuticals. Interesting phenomenon from the world of advertising.]

Background 1: crab has come up on this blog before, in connections with things sold as crabsticks though they  have no crab in them: they are not crab, but pollock made into a paste and fashioned into crabmeat-like sticks.

Background 2: I have noted many times that some composite common names for plants and animals are subsective, and some are not: an Easter lily is a lily (the composite Easter lily is subsective), but a calla lily is not (the composite calla lily is merely resembloid: a calla lily isn’t a lily, but resembles one). But things are more complex than that.

Consider daylily. Some people seem to have a category LILY that embraces daylilies, so that they understand daylily to be subsective, like Easter lily, tiger lily, etc. Note: this is an observation about ordinary people’s category structures and the labels that go along with them; the way biologists view things is something else again, as we’ll see.

(Side note: when I say things like this, some people object, “What’s wrong with these folks? Can’t they see that daylies are obviously different from Easter lilies, tiger lilies, etc.?” My response: of course they can. They can also see that tiger lilies are obviously different from Easter lilies, that the rose Why Not (single-petaled, miniature, yellow) and the rose Eden (multi-petaled. climbing, light pink) are obviously different, etc.)

Similarly, many people have a category CRAB that embraces the creatures they know as snow crabs and those they know as king crabs. For them, both composites are subsective. Again, this is the way some ordinary people think and talk, not what biologists do. (For biologists, king crabs are not crabs, period.)

Background 3: As I said in my posting on “misleadingly named animals”, biologists are given to what I called technicalism, the assumption their category structures and accompanying naming practices are the only valid (true) ones, with the result that they’re inclined to say that the way that non-biologists think and talk about some creatures is simply wrong.

In its simplest form, technicalism would insist that only the names from biological taxonomy (for species, genera, families, etc.) should be used in talking about plants and animals. Lilium and Hemerocallis, not (ever) lily and daylily. As far as I know, no biologist insists on such hard-rock technicalism, all the time. Instead, they engage in what I’ll call appropriative technicalism, in which terms from ordinary language are appropriated as synonyms of labels from biological taxonomy: lily is treated as a synonym of Lilium, daylily as a synonym of Hemerocallis. And then these labels, which look just like ordinary-language vocabulary, are taken to pre-empt the ordinary-language usages. In my view, this terminological move does violence to ordinary language.

In any case, appropriative technicalism leads to the odd ways of talking in the “misleadingly named animals” posting: the electric eel is said not to be an eel (not a “true eel”), a mountain goat not a goat (not a “true goat”), a king cobra not a cobra (not a “true cobra”), a mayfly not a fly (not a true fly), and so on. And, from a posting on “rock shrimp”, these creatures are said not to be shrimp (not “true shrimp”).

What’s a crab? I’ll start with NOAD2 on crab, which has as its main definition an expansive one that fits well with overyday usage:

a crustacean with a broad carapace, stalked eyes, and five pairs of legs, the first pair of which are modified as pincers. Crabs are abundant on many shores, especially in the tropics, where some have become adapted to life on land.

This will certainly cover snow crabs, for instance this decapod in the species Chionoecetes opilio:


And king crabs as well, for instance this decapod in the species Paralithodes camtschaticus (common name red king crab).


(Disregard the octopodal appearance of this creature.)

Wikipedia goes all technical:

Crabs are decapod crustaceans of the infraorder Brachyura, which typically have a very short projecting “tail” (abdomen) (Greek: βραχύς / brachys = short, οὐρά / οura = tail), usually entirely hidden under the thorax. They live in all the world’s oceans, in fresh water, and on land, are generally covered with a thick exoskeleton and have a single pair of claws. Many other animals with similar names – such as hermit crabs, king crabs, porcelain crabs, horseshoe crabs and crab lice – are not true crabs.

Here we see the ordinary-language term crab appropriated as a synonym for the taxonomic label Brachyura. So king crabs are said not to be crabs, because by this terminological decision, they are not “true crabs”.

Except for crab lice (on which, more below), all of the creatures named as “not true crabs” in the Wikipedia entry are in the order Decapoda, along with “true crabs”, crayfish, lobsters, prawns, and shrimps. So they are in fact taxonomically close to the so-called true crabs; and they also resemble them significantly. Crab could have been appropriated for a wider category than Brachyura.

[Digression on crab lice. Crab louse is in fact a subsective compound — crab lice are lice — with a first element indicating a resemblance of these creatures to crabs:


The crab louse (Pthirus pubis, also pubic louse) is an insect [hence, hexapodal] that is an obligate ectoparasite of humans, feeding exclusively on blood. The crab louse usually is found in the person’s pubic hair. (Wikipedia link)

So what is it doing in the “not a true crab” list? Well, as NOAD2 notes, crab also occurs as an (informal) truncation of crab louse:

crab (also crab louse) a louse that infests human body hair, especially in the genital region, causing extreme irritation. Also called pubic louse.

As in, “Dammit! Kelly gave me crabs! Get the Kwell!”]

Snow crabs. On the genus, from Wikipedia:

Chionoecetes is a genus of crabs that live in the northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Other names for crabs in this genus include “queen crab” (in Canada) and “spider crab” – they are known by different names in different areas of the world. The generic name Chionoecetes means snow (χιών, chion) inhabitant (οιχητης, oiketes); opilio means shepherd, and C. opilio is the primary species referred to as snow crab. Marketing strategies, however, employ snow crab for anything in the genus Chionoecetes. Snow crab refers to them being commonly found in cold northern oceans.

As usual, there are alternative common names for the same creature, and the same common name is used for a number of distinct — though, in this case, closely related — creatures. More from the Wikipedia article on C. opilio:

Chionoecetes opilio, also known as snow crab, is a predominantly epifaunal crustacean native to shelf depths in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and north Pacific Ocean. It is a well-known commercial species of Chionoecetes, often caught with traps or by trawling. Male C. opilio with a total length above 91 millimetres (3.6 in) long are the most commonly trapped, especially around Canada and Newfoundland. This crab genus is found across northern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There are seven species in the genus Chionoecetes, all of which bear the name “snow crab.” Chionoecetes opilio is also related to Chionoecetes tanneri, commonly known as the tanner crab, and other crab species found in the cold, northern oceans.

Snow crab legs ready for feasting on:


Like lobsters and shrimp, crabs turn red when cooked. (Ok, it’s more complicated than that: apparently, heat destroys the compounds in the shells that mask the orange-red pigments there.)

King crabs. From Wikipedia:

King crabs, also called stone crabs [alternative common names again], are a superfamily of crab-like decapod crustaceans chiefly found in cold seas. Because of their large size and the taste of their meat, many species are widely caught and sold as food, the most common being the red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus.

King crabs are generally thought to be derived from hermit crab-like ancestors

… The red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus, is a very large species, sometimes reaching a carapace width of 11 in (28 cm) and a leg span of 6 ft (1.8 m). Its natural range is the Bering Sea, between the Aleutian Islands and St. Lawrence Island. It can now also be found in the Barents Sea and the European Arctic, where it was intentionally introduced and is now becoming a pest.

… Red king crabs make up over 90% of the annual king crab harvest.

King crabs not only tend to be large — hence the king in the name — but they are also spiny, some much more so than the one in #2.

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