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Small fish

It usually is tiny by any measure and I doubt it features highly in any chic restaurants yet there is something about the European sprat that keeps my thoughts occupied with it in recent weeks. Let me tell you why.

It all started with an infographic. The European Parliament adopted its position on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in early February, so we thought we should do something nice about it and publish a visual addition to our coverage. Here is the result. Do you notice those little fellows under the Three most caught fish category? That's it, the European sprat.

All fine, but now I had to translate the name of this fish in Bulgarian. I didn't know the English term – maybe it is my ignorance or maybe this is not the fish you see first in fish shops or restaurants. But ok, this is what dictionaries are for, I looked it up and here is the surprise – there are at least four different words we use in Bulgarian for this most humble of fish! There was the popular "цаца" (pronounced tsatsa), and now I knew what we were taking about, but there was also another word used in the north of the country, there was a third term derived from the common name in most of Europe and there is finally a term that usually signifies the marinated product.

This is still not the whole story – I looked up the word in some other languages and it seems the fish is known by many names there too: for example, Wikipedia suggests it is also called bristling, brisling or skipper in English (my apologies, if you are a native speaker and I am just pointing the obvious).

I was amazed with this variety of words and puzzled how this fish turned out to be given so many different names. Is it because it is so ubiquitous that people know it from ancient times, even before the development of modern languages and common terms? Or is it because it is so small and insignificant that people want to give it a new fancy name that will make it more extraordinary and, ultimately, more marketable?

Whatever the sprat's story, it brings me back to summer get-togethers with family or friends in tiny restaurants by the sea in my hometown where "цаца" is abundant and so is good humour. It also reminds me of a Bulgarian comedy classic of old times called "Whale", where fishermen finally catch something after many days in the sea. "It is fish, but it is sprat", sighs their boss. "It is sprat, but it is fish", they insist. In the end, the news of the catch is a bit exaggerated along reporting lines and the highest level of hierarchy is told it was… a whale.

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