Nothing predisposes Epinephelus itajara to be a troublemaker. A voracious grouper that can grow to more than 6 feet, the lurking bottom-feeder is sluggish enough that countless skin-divers have posed for undersea snapshots with it.
The problem comes from the name that, for centuries, has been given this animal: “jewfish.”
Though a scientific committee has decided the old common appellation is in bad taste and should be replaced by “goliath grouper,” the former name lives on in geography, from a saltwater creek here in Florida’s southern archipelago to a cape on Santa Catalina Island.
A Washington, D.C.-area resident wants to change that. In a petition to a federal panel on geographic names, Arnold G. Konheim has objected that “the word ‘Jew’ in any form other than a noun is derogatory.”
He also noted that since the fish itself now has a different name, so should the inlet that separates Key Largo from Florida’s mainland peninsula.
A two-lane drawbridge on U.S. 1, and a green sign with the name ‘Jewfish Creek,’ are signs to travelers that they have entered the 120-mile-long island chain, a popular vacation destination.
“I travel frequently to the Keys whenever I visit my family. I see the sign every time,” Konheim, an official with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said in a telephone interview. “The name is not only offensive to the people who live there, but to the visitors.”
Is his request a sensible application of America’s growing sensitivity to anything that might be considered an ethnic slight, or one more example of political correctness gone haywire? In the Keys, few seem to have much doubt.
“It’s been this way forever, and it doesn’t offend anyone,” said Kim Bays, 41, front desk manager at the Anchorage Resort & Yacht Club, a time-share resort on Jewfish Creek’s southern shore. “Nobody goes for the name change.”
Last month, the five-member Monroe County Commission voted unanimously against altering the name the inlet has been known by since at least 1907. Commissioner Dixie Spehar said not one of the county’s 80,000 residents turned out to support the new designation.
“We are reluctant to change here, I guess,” Spehar said. “Also, the fact that some people might think the name had some other meaning for us than the fish made us uncomfortable. That is just offensive.”
One of many competing theories about the origin of the fish’s common name is that its big-headed profile resembles anti-Semitic caricatures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, according to an August 1996 article in Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine. Spehar said she sees no similarity.
“It looks like Yasser Arafat, if you want to know what I think,” the commissioner said.
“Anytime, and we know this from experience, that there is any activity with regard to changing geographic names, it is an emotional issue,” said geographer Roger L. Payne, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which will have to rule on the issue, at least as far as references on federal maps and navigation charts are concerned. “Second, there is never 100% agreement, which is why the federal government considers local acceptance of paramount importance.”
The 15-member federal name-change board is to take up the matter of Jewfish Creek at its February meeting, and it will have to weigh the amount of offense caused by the name against the degree of attachment local residents have to it, Payne said.
According to the online gazetteer of the U.S. Geological Survey, the names of nine geographical features in the United States now include the word “jewfish,” including a creek, key, basin, bay, channel and populated place in Florida, and a point on Santa Catalina’s southeastern tip. In fact, note California historians, the first newspaper published in Catalina’s town of Avalon, beginning in 1889, was called “The Jew Fish.”
Gwen Bronson, spokeswoman for the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, said she was unaware of any demand to change the cape’s name.
After scientists of the American Fisheries Society began trying to standardize names in the 1930s, the California fish was renamed the giant sea bass to avoid confusion with the species found in the Caribbean and nearby waters.
Epinephelus itajara, the largest grouper found in North America, got its new name last year, when a joint committee of the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists agreed it should henceforth be called goliath grouper.
“Though many Jewish officials told us it’s part of our history and didn’t want the name change, we still had to respect those who were offended,” said professor emeritus Joe S. Nelson of the University of Alberta in Canada, who chaired the joint committee.
According to Nelson, it was not the first adaptation of ichthyology, the scientific study of fishes, to new standards of what sort of names are deemed permissible for animals. In 1998, the committee on fish names changed “squawfish” to “pike minnow” to take into account requests from Native Americans on the West Coast.
Likewise, if Konheim is successful, it will not be the first time the maps of the United States have to be rewritten because of shifting standards of taste and ethnic or racial considerations. In 1963, the federal names board ordered all geographical features in the country changed that included a derogatory epithet for African Americans. Eight years later, the board did the same for place names with a pejorative abbreviation for Japanese.
But tampering with references that have been in use for generations can be risky. The federal panel ran into a buzz saw of criticism following the assassination of President Kennedy when, on prompting from the White House, it changed Cape Canaveral, the tongue of land on Florida’s Atlantic Coast that is home to America’s spaceport, to Cape Kennedy. There was enough public opposition to force the board to backtrack a year and a half later, though the space center itself kept the president’s name.
Residents of the Keys pride themselves on a laid-back, broad-minded lifestyle, and even Jewish leaders here said they are not bothered by the old name of a fish appearing on road signs and maps.
“Were it called ‘Hate the Jewfish Creek,’ ” then I would object,” said Rabbi Yaacov Zucker of the Chabad Community Center in Key West. “The Keys is a very tolerant community.”
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.