Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Further clarification on the prawn matter.

One of the first things I wrote about on this site was my confusion about the difference between shrimp and prawns. As I discovered while writing that post but even more after seeing all the Google hits it drew, such confusion is not at all uncommon. Recently, though, I found that post linked from a site I hadn't heard of before called AskEarth, where someone raised the question, as I did here, "What is the difference between a prawn and a shrimp?" and added, charmingly, as I had not thought to, "I will not pay for an answer."

One of the people who responded in that thread offered a link to my post and two other sites, one of which I had linked to. The reaction to those links by
VladmirW, a respondent later in the thread who's determined to dispel the crustacean confusion, was interesting to me in a number of ways.

First, I was amused to see that in his insult and dismissal of what I'd written, he appears to refer to me once as a journalist and once as a food writer "or whatever." Not quite, Vlad. Not quite. I'm just someone who knows nearly nothing, will drone on at absurd lengths about anything that crosses his mind, and is quite apt to stick his foot in his mouth and say something he'll regret. That's all. Just so we're clear.

I'm pretty sure if I were a journalist, someone would pay me somtime for something I'd written. This is certainly not the case.

On the one hand, I was a little annoyed at his implication that I'm doing a poor job as a journalist. On the other hand, I was flattered that my writing is evidently so good passersby imagine that I must be doing it professionally.

(Also, I wasn't "looking for something to yammer about." I was looking for answers. Yammering just comes naturally to me.)

It's clear that none of those journalists owns a dictionary" chafes in another way, though. Specifically, I love the dictionary. It pains me not only to be thought ignorant of it but even more to have genuinely been neglectful of it. While I do of course own a dictionary (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate), I'll confess I did not pull it off the bookshelf in the other room when I wrote the post. Let me do that now.

(As an aside, I must mention that, in opening it up just now to a random "S" page, I came upon one headed by "soft-shell clam," from which I conclude the English language is dominated by seafood.)
Shrimp, 1: any of numerous mostly small and marine decapod crustaceans (suborder Natantia) having a slender elongated body, compressed abdomen, long legs, and a long spiny rostrum.

Prawn: any of numerous widely distributed edible decapod crustaceans (as of the genera Pandalus and Peneus) that resemble shrimps with large compressed abdomens; also : SHRIMP
OK, granted, maybe it's partly my fault for not recognizing the terms Natantia, Pandalus, or Peneus, but c'mon. My friend The Dictionary? Not helpful here. It defined a prawn as something that resembles a shrimp.

Just to get into the spirit of things, to take seriously Vlad's ownership concerns, and, well, to keep it real [I'm all about keepin' it real], I quoted above from the solid old hardback copy that my parents gave me for Christmas in 1991, but you can see the same definitions online here and here. Dictionary.com is also of little help. Its definition of prawn? "
Any of various edible crustaceans similar to but larger than the shrimps."

So I think Vlad's mistaken to try to throw the dictionary in my face, but he does make a very valid point that there are actual scientific differences that I originally failed to note. Honestly, though, it's hard to make note of those differences when you watch a "Science Information Officer" respond to the direct question "What is the scientific difference(s) between shrimp and prawn?" by discussing only the scientific similarities between them.

Vlad emphasizes
that prawns have two sets of pincers while shrimp have one. It's not clear what his source for that fact is. Perhaps he's an expert and doesn't need to consult one, but citing one would be helpful for us nonexperts. Mack, who earlier in the thread linked my post, also linked to this site, which speaks of not the number of pincer sets but their location on five pairs of legs versus two.

Vlad does helpfully quote this Wikipedia entry, which says prawns "are distinguished from the superficially-similar shrimp by the gill structure which is branching in prawns..., but is lamellar in shrimp." If you are unable, as I am, to visualize lamellae, this still doesn't make the distinction altogether clear. But OK, something about gill structure. That same Wikipedia paragraph says that while shrimp belong to the sub-order Pleocyemata, prawns belong to Dendrobranchiata, which, it notes, is a name that means the gill structure branches as in a tree.

So certainly there are some genuine scientific differences between the two, and I should have pinned those down and made them clear in my earlier post. To that end, I should have first checked Wikipedia ("a better source than the Googling everyone is so fond of," says Vlad). So dock a point or two from me.

However, does this render worthless my whole earlier post? It does not. While I was regrettably unclear, I wasn't trying to assert there is no scientific difference between the two but rather no culinary and commercial difference. Clues indicating that may be found in the way I opened with this sentence:
"It's seemed lately that I'm seeing dishes with prawns appearing on more restaurant menus than in the past" and closed with this paragraph:
In fact, that same article observes that "essentially, there are no rules governing what your supermarket can sell as shrimp and what it can sell as prawns." It also included this sentence, my favorite on the subject: "One [seafood] industry expert we spoke to became so exasperated, he swore that no one on earth knows the difference." So I guess I was as good as an expert already.
On this count, the Wikipedia prawn article doesn't undermine but rather validates my post, asserting, "As used in commercial farming and fishery, the terms shrimp and prawns are generally used interchangeably." Googling, whatever Vlad may think, was very helpful in developing and demonstrating this point.

So what have we learned here, other than pincers and gill structure?
  • I should always remember to check all relevant terms in the dictionary before writing about them, although in this instance, I'd have gained nothing.
  • It's worthwhile checking Wikipedia when researching a topic. In this case, it shows both where I went wrong and where I went right.
  • I may never draw a paycheck for anything I write, but I can string together sentences well enough to fool some people.
My sincerest gratitude to the rude but helpful VladimirW for bringing these things to my attention.