Snakehead 蛇頭 versus Snakehead 鱧科: Chinese Language versus English Language

When I originally watched the film, “Snakehead,” I thought that the name referenced an actual animal. Why not? We call the people who smuggle illegal immigrants across the US southern border coyotes and I’ve actually seen and heard and howled with four-legged coyotes. I don’t think I’ve met two-legged coyotes, but how would one know?

Snakehead fish were in the news a while back and even inspired a few movies such as the made-for-TV “Snakehead Terror.” The so-called snakehead fish is native to Asia and Africa. They have long-bodies and large mouths. They are freshwater fish of the family Channidae and about 29 species are in existence. In the US, it is considered an invasive species. In 2002, according to a Smithsonian article, the Northern Snakehead was discovered in Maryland and a mild panic ensued. 

National newspaper and TV news reports described snakeheads as vicious predators that would eat every fish in a pond, then waddle across land to another body of water and clean it out. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun called it “a companion for the Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Some of the fish came to the US as food, sold live in markets, but sometimes they were released and that led to a ban. It is illegal to import all live snakehead fish. And yet in Los Angeles, there was an incident.

A Los Angeles grocer was arrested this past May for allegedly smuggling live northern snakeheads into the country from Korea and selling them in his store; he pleaded guilty to importing an injurious species.

The Smithsonian article was written in 2005, so one hopes that isn’t happening any more.

However, the snakehead fish and the snakehead human are, at least in Chinese, not related to each other.  The Chinese term “Snakehead” or shétóu (蛇头 in simplified or 蛇頭 in traditional) has nothing to do with the so-called snakehead fish family. In Chinese, the term for human smuggler is literally “snake” and “head.”  For punsters wondering if there were any possible homophones, here’s what I found: Shétóu does sound like the term 舌头 (Traditional 舌頭) which means tongue although I also found it might mean “an enemy soldier captured for the purpose of extracting information.”

The Chinese word for the snakehead fish is Lǐ kē (鱧科 ). The 鱧 translates to “conger.” In Japanese, the snakehead fish is called ライギョ (雷魚、Snakehead). Rai or Kaminari or 雷 means thunder so “thunder fish.” 

Rotten Tomatoes gives the 2004 “Snakehead Terror” a 24 percent score from the more forgiving audience members because no Tomatometer critics have given it a review. The 2004 “Frankenfish” did only slightly better with a 33 percent audience score and has two Tomatometer reviews. “Snakehead Swamp” is a more recent addition (2014) and has a 12 percent audience score.  

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