Crawfish or Crayfish: That is the Question

crawfish or crawfish with bib
“♪♪…You get a line, I’ll get pole, we’ll go fishin’ at the crawdad hole…♪♫”

“♪♪…Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo…son of gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou… ♪♪” -Hank Williams, Sr.

According to skatoolaki.com a true born Cajun wouldn’t even think about calling the small mud dwelling crustaceans found in freshwater locations, “crayfish”; and “crawdad” is completely unacceptable! However, just take a few minutes to listen to the songs above and you will quickly find that there are discrepancies in pronunciation. But, what exactly, is the correct way? Well, Cher, both crawfish and crayfish are technically correct.
Wit 98% of the crayfish eaten in the US coming from Louisiana crawfish farms, it is no surprise that these Southerners have strong opinions about how the word is pronounced. So without much further ado, here is the etymological history of the crayfish (as well as those all around the globe). It comes from an Old High German word krebiz, which when translated to English became crevise or  ecrevisse. The word was used to refer to the small lobster-like crustaceans found in freshwater in Europe, Asia, South Africa, Australia and, of most importance to Cajun Crawfish, in North America. As the word krebiz began to be used, people began pronouncing the last syllable as “fish.”

By 1555, the English-speaking people were spelling, as well as pronouncing, the word as both crayfish and crawfish. However, there are some areas in the American west and central regions where the term crawdad is not uncommon. In fact, one may even hear the term mudbug used as well. Also of note, is that the word crawfish can be used as a verb meaning, “to withdraw from a position; to back down.” (For example, ”We need to crawfish out of this arrangement.”)

Here in Cajun country, how you pronounce the word (remember, we say crawfish) is just as important as knowing how to prepare and eat it. But that is another topic for another day. Meanwhile, consider these LA crawfish statements, borrowed from a list titled, “You Know You’re a Cajun When…

  • You know you recycled too much newspaper when there isn’t enough for the crawfish table.
  • The four festival seasons in your year are Crawfish, Shrimp, Crab and King Cake.
  • The smell of a crawfish or shrimp boil turns you on more than the Movie Channel or HBO.
  • You “wrench” your hands in the sink with an onion bar to get the crawfish smell off.

As one travels the US, especially those areas where crayfish are enjoyed, you will certainly hear the various pronunciations for crawfish. But one thing is certain, whether you call then crayfish or crawfish, mudbugs or crawdads, these tiny crustaceans are definitely a food enjoyed by people everywhere.

The American Heritage Dictionary, copyright 1994