I mean, it's not like there is a tuna vegetable or animal that it can be confused with.

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    Who said we did? – HaL Apr 5 '11 at 21:27
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    For the same reason we say "cheddar cheese" ;) – Kevin Apr 5 '11 at 21:27
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    @Kevin - americans say chedder cheese in the hope that you will believe them that their stuff is cheese. – mgb Apr 5 '11 at 23:00
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    Of course, “tuna” IS a fruit merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tuna – nohat Apr 5 '11 at 23:17
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    "You can tune a file system, but you can't tuna fish." BSD 4.2 man page for tunefs – mgb Apr 6 '11 at 2:38

I agree with you that it does seem redundant. However, this is common with other kinds of fish as well. Many people say "codfish" instead of "cod". Here is a recipe for "trout fish" croquets.

This convention has important meaning to a huge number of fish names: catfish, lionfish, swordfish, sunfish, cowfish, etc.

Also, it provides extra clarification for someone who wouldn't know what a "tuna" or a "cod" is otherwise. Anyone learning English as a second language will probably learn the meaning of "fish" early on, but may not know the more specific names.

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    Apart from swordfish - which I suppose does need extra context I only every heard it for tuna. There is Lutefisk but that's the dish not the fish – mgb Apr 5 '11 at 23:01
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    Many names for fish have alternate, often older meanings in English, e.g., cod (meaning "bag"), trout (meaning "curdle" or "coagulate"), sardine (a precious stone), carp (meaning "discourse"), and obviously cat/lion/sword/sun/cow/snapper/flounder/monk/sole. – ESultanik Jun 20 '11 at 19:10
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    @Esultanik: wow, four new (to me) meanings in one comment! I hope you're not joking. – Tim Lymington Aug 8 '11 at 11:01
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    @TimLymington: No joke! Etymology is Serious Business! Some of those meanings have been obsolesced, though, so you may not want to add them to your everyday lexicon. – ESultanik Aug 8 '11 at 14:36
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    -1 Have to disagree. Plus, cat, lion, sword, sun, or cow are not parts of a phrase with 'fish' but integral prefixes. So, you can't ever just say cat, lion, ... the without fish to mean that. It's not that fish provides extra (redundant) clarification, it is tuna that modifies fish. There are contexts where you are talking about fish and want to mention a certain type, say, tuna -- here, the adjective is a contextual addition, not the subject per se. More in favor of tuna fish if this were not a comment. – Kris Nov 25 '12 at 13:04

Tuna or cod is not always fish, just as cheddar is not always cheese.

In both cases, it distinguishes the primary item from items merely flavored with the item.

Tuna fish is almost always the meat of the Tuna. Seldom is it the fish itself alive and/or whole; for those uses, "tuna" is used without "fish." Tuna salad is a mixture of tuna and mayonaise, and often some diced pickles and/or onions. Tuna sandwiches are sandwiches using tuna, and can be grilled or tuna salad. Tuna crackers are tuna flavored crackers. Tuna alone also can be a crude aphorism for female genitalia.

Cheddar is both the cheese, and the city where the recipe originates. Several cheeses are likewise named for their place of origin, most notably swiss, münster, and berkswell. But cheddar crackers are not made of cheddar, nor do they originate in cheddar, but are flavored with cheddar cheese. Cheddar spread is mostly cheddar cheese,

Cod can be the fish, or the meat of the fish; a cod dinner is seldom just codfish, but usually also chips (fries) and/or hushpuppies (corn fritters). The USS Cod is a submarine. Cod is also an extremely common acronym, most commonly for "Cash on Delivery." Codpiece is a male pubic covering; cod at one point was slang for the scrotum, so codfish was a way of ensuring one was talking about fish and not men's genitals.

Speaking of corn fritters, I've never met a fritter that wasn't made with cornmeal; I'm TOLD they exist... Likewise, most have also wheat flour and whole kernel corn. It's another case of a term that at first appears to be redundant, but really isn't.

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  • hushpuppies definitely need more adornment, had there been no (cord fritters) I would have thought that it would be made from a young canine. – Lie Ryan Sep 7 '11 at 6:51
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    It really depends on the word. We don't call it Champagne wine or Cologne perfume. You might call it cheddar cheese out of context but if you asked for a slice of Cheddar, it would be unlikely you wanted a strip of the city! I never knew that tuna was also a cactus fruit; to me it is always the edible flesh of one of the types of fish called tuna (bluefin, yellowfin, etc.) unless it is disambiguated by context. – CJ Dennis Dec 6 '14 at 2:02
  • But 'tuna fish bake' also exists as a usage. 'Tuna bake' is used because it is more snappy. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 21 '15 at 15:24
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    I have, @Bohemian. I've even done so myself, and my passport says "US Citizen"... – aramis Feb 13 '17 at 21:24
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    @Bohemian One of the things people often forget is that American English isn't one monolithic thing. If you go to different regions even sometimes in the same state, they refer to things by different names. FWIW, where I grew up people used both interchangeably. – Tim Seguine Feb 27 '17 at 15:05

As a fisherman I can tell you that:

"Tuna-fish" refers to the stuff in a can that is used to make tuna-fish salads or similar items. It is typically albacore.

"Tuna" refers to the the meat in steak form and served raw (as sushi/sashimi), grilled, or pan seared. It is typically yellow-fin or blue-fin.

Other fish such as catfish, swordfish, lionfish, etc. obviously need the fish qualifier as a cat, sword, and lion as stand alone words are completely different things. Also, while there is a tuna cactus (it is the fruit part) it most commonly referred to as the prickly pear cactus.

Below the first picture is "tuna-fish" and the second picture is "tuna". Tuna is perhaps the only fish where preparations are this vastly different.



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  • I agree with your assessment of the use of "tuna fish" vs "tuna". But what are your thoughts on why one is called "tuna fish"? I never hear canned chicken referred to as "chicken bird". – Trevor D Sep 3 '16 at 21:02
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    Only because I've never heard of the distinction before, can you supply dictionary definitions which support this differentiation? – Mitch Aug 6 '18 at 20:53
  • @Mitch, it's in the OED. See my answer below for the entry, if you don't have access. – lly Aug 7 '18 at 15:41
  • @Mitch I'm not sure any dictionary would support it, the distinction is colloquial. If I told you to come over for a tuna dinner, and you were expecting what is in the bottom picture but received the top picture.... – Skooba Aug 7 '18 at 16:42

Tuna is used to mean the fish, and the flesh of that fish (which is also called tuna fish).

Tuna is also the edible fruit of a cactus, or the name of that cactus.

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Just to back up Skooba's correct answer, the OED entry for “tuna fish” is precisely

tuna fish n. the flesh of the tunny as food.

with its earliest citation given as

1917 M[ary] Green Better Meals [for Less Money] xvi. 130 (heading)

enter image description here

Wikipedia's article on tuna similarly glosses

When tuna is canned and packaged for sale, the product is sometimes called tuna fish.

noting that the US legally restricts “white meat tuna” to referencing albacore and not yellowfin, bluefin, &c.

It's also worth noting that Albert Halfhill & his followers completely altered the flavor of tuna while trying to keep his cannery in business through a collapse of the sardine fishery off California in 1903. He tried to reverse engineer some Italian tuna canning methods, removing the fish oil and replacing it with salad oil, but went on to treat the result with compressed steam. The white meat that process produced—the stuff Americans mean when they talk about “tuna fish” and a very different thing from tuna steak or sashimi—had such a chicken-like consistency that tuna exploded in popularity in the US and even a century later still famously got confused with chicken on national television.

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I think of tuna fish as the chopped up stuff in a can.

Tuna, on the other hand, I think of as whole fish.

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I think the reason cheese gets appended to Cheddar much more often than to Double Gloucester, Brie, Camembert, Wensleydale etc. is because it's the most common type. The archetypal cheese, as cod is the archetypal fish. (and I've heard codfish, but not haddockfish or salmonfish). And in UK at least, tuna is the most common canned fish.

As an archetype, it often thus gets to represent not just it's own particular type, but all cheeses. After a restaurant meal I might ask for some Cheddar Cheese - I may not really care which cheese I get, but most likely if they have any, they'll have that. If they do have alternatives I'll doubtless be offered them, but I'd be irritated by a waiter who included cheesecake in the offerings after I'd asked for Cheddar Cheese.

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    Why so much cheese in your comment? What about the tuna? – JIP Apr 6 '11 at 3:20
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    I like cheese more than tuna – FumbleFingers Apr 6 '11 at 3:29

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