20

This live crustacean is called astice in Italian. The one on the right is aragosta.

picture of crustacean labeled "this is an astice"picture of a crustacean labeled "and this is an aragosta"

They look very different from one another. The Italian dictionary describes the astice as having a deep (intense) blue colour (turchino) with yellow splotches and large claws, whereas the aragosta has a reddish body, five pairs of legs, long antennae and an incredibly hard shell that covers its body and head. To me it looks like a giant insect. In English, however, they are both called lobster and if you eat lobster in either a British or an American restaurant, they will often present you with an astice. An article in the London Evening Standard clearly shows the restaurateur (an Italian!) with two large ‘astices’ in his hands. :))

I don't care which species they give me, frankly they're both delicious, but if I were to invite an Italian friend to a Boston restaurant and order lobster for both of us, she might be dismayed at seeing an astice on her plate.

The Italian term astice is derived from άστακός (astakós); Greek for prawn or lobster (which one exactly is unclear). Astakos is also the name of a Greek fishing bay.

The Online Etymological Dictionary says (emphasis mine)

lobster (n.) marine shellfish, Old English loppestre "lobster, locust," corruption of Latin locusta, lucusta "lobster, locust," by influence of Old English loppe "spider," a variant of lobbe. The ending of Old English loppestre is the fem. agent noun suffix (as in Baxter, Webster; see -ster), which approximated the Latin sound. [. . .] OED says the Latin word originally meant "lobster or some similar crustacean, the application to the locust being suggested by the resemblance in shape." Locusta in the sense "lobster" also appears in French (langouste now "crawfish, crayfish," but in Old French "lobster" and "locust;" a 13c. psalter has God giving over the crops of Egypt to the langoustes) and Old Cornish (legast).

picture of a cooked lobster on a plate with lemon slices

Questions

  1. Why is there only one term in English for these two different species?
  2. To me the Boston "black" lobster (astice) looks more like a scarab beetle or a crab than a locust. How did this crustacean get its English name?
  3. If I wanted to order aragosta in an English speaking restaurant, what should I ask for?

images: Così cucino io; Alimentipedia and The Food Almanac

  • 5
    Interesting question. I had never noticed that English uses the same word for the two different species. It appears that the astice is a clawed lobster while the aragosta is a spiny lobster. lobsterhelp.com/types-of-lobster – user66974 Apr 26 '15 at 10:03
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    There’s a long story behind all this. Just like it seems strange to you, it also seems strange to Spaniards and Catalans that English conflates the completely separate creatures which the Spanish distinguish as bovogantes, langostas, langostinos, cigalas, and probably others I am forgetting. There just isn’t a one-to-one mapping here. That list is order of size descending, so the huge Maine lobster with the claws is the first one while the much smaller Norway lobster used for scampi is the last one, but they are not shrimp. I bet Italian has many different prawn/shrimp/etc. words, too. – tchrist Apr 26 '15 at 11:40
  • 4
    @tchrist Italians take their food seriously, just look at their variety of pasta. Anyway, it's damn odd that these two creatures which are different colours and have a different anatomy, share a common name. Should I really order spiny lobster in a British restaurant? I don't think I have ever seen it on a menu. Maybe in the posher ones? – Mari-Lou A Apr 26 '15 at 11:48
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    In answer to your question about whether to order “spiny lobster”, you’re opening up a real can of sardines there because this very matter has been a strained point of legal disputes. There are places that try to prawn off langostas and langostinos on their menus as being actual bogovantes, since all three are just lobster in English (plus 4 others), and customers and I believe Maine fishermen have sued for false labelling because they consider nothing but bogovantes to be lobsters. My recollection is that they lost those court cases, so you don’t really know for sure what you’re getting. – tchrist Apr 26 '15 at 13:43
  • 3
    Oh I forgot one: I believe that IT cicala di mare or ES cigarra de mar or santiaguiño can be broad lobster or squat lobster in English. I think that these are the “bugs” or slipper lobsters of Australian fame. Bottom line is that in English, all crustaceans are basically one of three things, either lobsters or shrimp or crabs, even when they aren’t. And yes, prawns pertain to either and sometimes both of the first two groups. – tchrist Apr 26 '15 at 14:22
18

1) Why is there only one term in English for these two different species?

Technically, there are more than two terms (see below). But lobster is probably not common enough a meal for the average person to warrant making any difference.

For comparison, there are many breeds of ponies but I'd gather the typical person on a street will only have ever heard about Shetlands. Similarly, there are many brands of fridges, but one was so common in France at one point that frigo has become a French synonym for fridge in the same way that googling has come to mean searching online in English.

Or for instance, consider how some Amazon tribes reportedly have more words to describe shades of green in everyday speech than we do. They actually have a use for it. Similarly we distinguish a large number of crustaceans in Spain, France, and Italy because we literally eat boatloads of the stuff. The English and Americans eat a lot less of it insofar as I can recollect. In areas where they're common (e.g. Maine), having a single, simpler name make sense. (If you say you saw a bear in Yosemite, everyone will understand it was a black bear.)

2) To me the Boston "black" lobster (astice) looks more like a scarab beetle or a crab than a locust. How did this crustacean get its English name?

Probably because early British royalty spoke French. The Channel is abundant in spiny lobster, which is called Langouste in Normandy. (There also is a lot of the smaller variety called Langoustine which, interestingly, Google translates as "Norway lobster".)

With respect to why lobster, the family, gets confused with American lobster, the species, or with its European counterpart, it probably doesn't help that the American variety is sometimes called a true lobster.

To be frank, I'm very much like you, in that to me a Boston lobster obviously looks like a homar rather than a langouste, and I further distinguish the latter two from a langoustine or an écrevisse (pictures here). The truth of the matter though is, they all fall in a family called homar (literally lobster), so I kind of make sense of why English speakers, who rarely eat crustaceans besides shrimps, crabs, and the local variety of lobster on very rare occasions, would fail to distinguish different types of lobsters in everyday speak.

Put another way... Has it never surprised you that the Camel cigarette brand uses a dromedary instead of an actual camel on its packs? The two are clearly not the same to an observer who knows the distinction, but they're actually both part of an animal family called camels. Lobsters vs spiny lobsters are likewise clearly different to observers who know the distinction, but they both fall under the family of animals which is (in English) called... lobsters.

3) If I wanted to order aragosta in an English speaking restaurant, what should I ask for?

Ask for a spiny lobster or a Mediterranean lobster.

  • 2
    @Centaurus Dubious. Most of those languages use suffixes where we'd use a separate adjective so naively counting words doesn't make much sense. – David Richerby Apr 26 '15 at 15:41
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    I don't think your bears-in-Yosemite comparison really works. Black bears and grizzly bears are closely related species and it makes sense to just say "bear" in Yosemite because grizzlies have been extinct in California for nearly a hundred years. Clawed lobsters and spiny lobsters, on the other hand, are very distant biologically so the question is as much, "Why do we call these two completely different animals 'lobster'?" as anything else. – David Richerby Apr 26 '15 at 16:49
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    @DavidRicherby Yes! An Englishman has understood my dilemma. Aragosta is also much more expensive to buy in the fish markets than astice /Boston lobster. The two species have quite distinctive anatomies, you can't mix the two up, whereas ponies (and bears) all share very similar traits. And I've discovered why Italians nickname the red lobster variety sea elephants, their scientific name is Palinurus elephas and Elephas is the proper name for the Asian elephant. (Who said EL&U isn't educative? :) – Mari-Lou A Apr 26 '15 at 17:51
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    @Mari-LouA: Has it never surprised you that the Camel cigarette brand uses a dromedary instead of an actual camel on its packs? The two are clearly not the same to an observer who knows the distinction, but they're actually both part of an animal family called camels. Lobsters vs spiny lobsters are likewise clearly different to observers like you or I who know the distinction, but they both fall under the family of animals which is (in English) called... lobsters. :-) – Denis de Bernardy Apr 26 '15 at 18:30
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    Are you sure about the camels? Both Camelus species are camels, whether the two-humped Bactrian camel or the one-humped dromedary camel. It is true that unlike with Bactrian camels, you can call a dromedary camel just a plain dromedary without the camel part. But I cannot see what is wrong with picturing a dromedary camel as a canonical camel. It’s not like they used a llama or an alpaca, let alone a vicuña or a guanaco. – tchrist Apr 26 '15 at 19:40
8

This

American_black_bear

this

Grizzly bear

and this

Polar bear

are all "bears".

This is a European robin

European robin

and this is an American one

American robin

There is not a unique English word for every animal in the world.

And (as with "robin") it was common for English-speaking Americans to assign existing animal names to new, unfamiliar animals that they encountered in the New World, rather than invent new names. There in nothing at all strange about this behavior

(It needs to be understood that "New England" was colonized mainly by religious and economic refugees from the British Isles and adjacent coastal Europe. While these were not uneducated people, few would have spent any time in Italy or otherwise been exposed to Italian cuisine and Italian seafood. And, when they arrived in the New World, their first priority was survival, not a careful cataloging of the fauna. A community that settled on the shore first and foremost needed to know that this strange crustacean was edible, and how to catch it. Settling on a community-accepted name for the beast as soon as possible facilitated this. They didn't have time to look it up on the Internet.)

Images: 1. American black bear (Wikipedia) 2. grizzly bear, photographer Galen Rowell 3. polar bear (Wikipedia) 4. European robin (Wikipedia) 5. American robin (South River Fed.)

5

Sometimes a language has a specific name for each variety of a certain species, but usually it does not. And there is a good reason for that: it's easier and more practical. There are more than twenty varieties of apples in the Plant Kingdom and it would certainly be clumsy to have a different name for each one of them. When you go to a grocery store you see their names on the tags: McIntosh, Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, etc, and that's how most of us learn which is which. They are different varieties but they are all apples, even though a "big red apple" and a "McIntosh" look very different.

It is the same with bears (polar bears, brown bears, black bears). Provided they belong to the same subfamily, they are all bears.

As for lobsters, there are also several varieties (American lobster, European lobster, scampy, crayfish) and I'm sure if a chef or professional cook is presented with "an astice", he will know what to call it.

References:

To answer your third question: In an English speaking restaurant, depending on what part of The Globe you are, you are likely to have only one kind of lobster and the word "lobster" is all you'll find on the menu. If you are lucky and they have two or three varieties, and that information is missing on the menu, the headwaiter may know what kind of crustacean they serve or he could get that information from the chef. Even if the chef doesn't know the specific name, he can always describe the lobster's phenotype. Once I was having dinner at a restaurant in Hawaii and was curious about some ingredients of a sauce. The headwaiter tried to get the information and I was surprised to see the chef come to my table and explain it himself.

  • 5
    I think it’s more than that, unless you start including horse apples and pommes de terre with apples. :) It’s really a matter of familiarity and exposure. Someone in Kansas sees no need to distinguish things he sees rarely if ever, but someone in Marseilles or Barcelona or Rome sees all these different things all the time and therefore has a separate non-overlapping name for each of them — plus many, many more besides: just compare Romance names for other molluscs and crustaceans! People who have cause to use different names for different things do so, but those without that need do not. – tchrist Apr 26 '15 at 13:49
  • @tchrist Yes, "People who have cause to use different names for different things......." but, imho, it's easier and more practical to add a second name to specify the new variety of fruit, insect or mollusc, than to coin a new name. Of course different peoples don't always do that and from what I've heard of the Chinese language, I think they have a word for almost anything.:) – Centaurus Apr 26 '15 at 14:15
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    But polar, black and brown bears are genetically rather close (polar and brown bears especially so: they can interbreed to give fertile offspring). Apples are closer still: they're different varieties of the same species. Clawed lobsters and spiny lobsters, on the other hand, are genetically rather distant: they're in the same order but that's as much as you can say. So the question is, essentially, "Why do we use the word 'lobster' for two completely different animals?" – David Richerby Apr 26 '15 at 16:55
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    @DavidRicherby From a naive point of view, they are morphologically similar enough to be considered the same "type" of animal. – augurar Apr 26 '15 at 18:45
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    @DavidRicherby These words we're using aren't scientific. People use the word 'bug' for all sorts of insects that are scientifically no closer than hundreds of millions of years. – Mitch Apr 26 '15 at 19:12
5

“Crayfish” also known as “lobster”, “langoustine”, “scampi” . . . (you get the picture)

It appears over the centuries, the terms for shellfish such as lobster, the Norway lobster, scampi, crayfish, prawn, and even shrimp were used interchangeably in different countries and in different languages. It's of little wonder that today, the term lobster is given ubiquitously to cover a wide range of crustaceans, both freshwater and marine.

From an academic paper titled Crayfish terminology in ancient Greek, Latin, and other European languages

From Aristotle to modern astacologists, different terms have been used in different European countries to express the notion “crayfish”. In Ancient Greek, “κάραβoς” (káravos) was used for spiny lobster, while άστακός (astakós) for both lobster and freshwater crayfish. The word “άστακός” was used by Greeks for naming towns and persons and as a city symbol on coins.

Further on

In the Renaissance, the freshwater crayfish was “cambarus” in popular Latin, and “astacus” in scientific Latin. Modern words such as in Italian (gambero), Castilian (cangrejo), Catalonian (cranc), and Old French of southern France (chambre and cambre) seem to be descendants of the popular Latin term (cambarus). One might detect similarities in the sound of the words for freshwater crayfish across European countries: the German (Krebs), French (écrevisse), or English (crayfish), and these appear to have affinities with the terms in Old Dutch, Old English, Luxemburgian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.
[. . .]
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) provides the earliest extant literary reference to crayfish “άστακός” in his Historiae Animalium (HA line 530a 28). According to Cuvier (1803) and Huxley (1880a: 13; 1880b: 8-9), Aristotle used the term “άστακός” mostly for the European lobster, Homarus gammarus (Linnaeus, 1758). [...] He attempted to make a distinction between “άστακός” [i.e. the Italian astice] and another similar aquatic animal, the “κάραβoς” [aragosta]. According to him, these two animals could be distinguished mainly by the presence or absence of large claws. So he called “κάραβoς” those animals without claws and “άστακός” those with claws.[...]. Elsewhere in HA, Aristotle mentioned that the smaller of the two animals, “άστακός”, lived in rivers (HA, line 528 a 28). The authors believe that in this case “άστακός in rivers” was the freshwater crayfish

To confuse the aquas (a literal translation of an Italian idiom) even further, modern Greek has reversed the meanings of these two terms: today atakόs is the marine European spiny lobster (Pallinurus elephas) which has no claws, while Καραβίδα (karavίda) is the freshwater crayfish (Astacus astacus) and the Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus), both of which have claws.

an ancient greek coin depicting crayfish/lobster

Coin from the city of Priapos, Mysia, (today Karabiga; Turkey) 1st century B. C. displaying the head of Apollo on one side and [possibly] of a crayfish on the other.

The term crayfish is said to be derived from Old High German krebiz, meaning "edible crustacean" this became crevice in Old French, which in turn became crevise in English. Eventually, people began pronouncing the ending vise as fish. In 1555 the first spelling of crayfish is recorded, and due to a variation in Anglo-Norman pronunciation, two spelling forms exist in English today: crayfish and crawfish.


Lobster a “poor man's food”

Apparently, the first pilgrims to New America did not consider lobster (but which species or variety of shellfish is not specified) to be a delicacy.

“Lobster, much as today, was considered especially elegant and appropriate food for lovers, being an aphrodisiac. There is a common perception that lobster was considered a poor man's food, and this may have been in the case in colonial New England but not back in Europe. In fact English man-about-town Samuel Pepys's diary records than an elegant dinner he threw in 1663 included a fricassee of rabbit and chickens, carp, lamb, pigeons, various pies and four lobsters...”

Food in Early Modern Europe, Ken Albala [Greenwood Press:Westport CT] 2003 (p. 75)

A similar citation exists which confirms the once held belief that lobster was a humble dish

“The American lobster (Homarus americanus) is today one of the more expensive food items on the market, owing to the difficulty of obtaining sufficient quantities to meet the demand. But when the first Europeans came to America, the lobster was one of the most commonly found crustaceans. They sometimes washed up on the beaches of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in piles of two feet high. These settlers approached the creatures with less than gustatory enthusiasm, but the abundance of lobsters made them fit for the tables of the poor... In 1622 Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation apologized to a new arrival of settlers that the only dish he "could presente their friends with was a lobster... without bread or anyhting els but a cupp of fair water."

Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Freidman:New York] 1999 (p. 186)

However, this citation, appealing though it may be, appears to only contain a half-truth. According to Sandy Oliver, author of several books of food history, John Mariani's encyclopaedia is a weak source:

It is true that Bradford said that about lobsters, and that must be put into the context of a proper, formal 17th century meal containing animal meat, not merely seafood alone. Bradford is saying they had no beef or pork or mutton which, in the days when a gentry meal had on the table several dishes some of which included one or more of those served in a rather whole condition, in a joint, plus bread, and wine or other brewed beverage. It is not a slam against lobster—merely a statement of fact.

What Is True About Lobster?

This clarificatory statement ties in with Samuel Pepy's diary entry which I cited earlier.


Is this really ‘lobster’?

Some answers have suggested in order to avoid receiving the clawed lobster species, the term spiny lobster should be used in a restaurant. But even that term is fraught with ambiguity and (apparently) there's no guarantee that the customer will receive the Palinurus elephas species.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, states:

spiny lobster Any of various edible marine decapod crustaceans of the family Palinuridae, having a spiny carapace and long antennae and lacking claws. Also called crayfish, langouste, rock lobster, sea crayfish.

The heated diatribe on the ‘correct’ nomenclature is not old. The website Deep Sea News has an article dated 2011, Are crawfish really lobster? The author Miriam Goldstein sustains that crawfish are in fact more closely related to clawed lobsters (H. americanus) than to California spiny lobsters.

enter image description here

The article mentions the gourmet grocery store Zabar’s in New York City which sold “lobster salad” at $16.95 per pound to its customers

But for the last 15 years, the lobster salad has been made with freshwater crawfish – it contained no actual lobster at all.

Further on

Infraorder Astacidea: We’ve now excluded most of the other tasty shrimp- and crab-looking dudes. They get their own infraorders – for example, the true shrimps are in Caridea, the true crabs are in Brachyura, the hermit crabs are in Anomura, etc. But we’ve ALSO broken off the tropical spiny lobsters! They ALSO get a separate infraorder: Palinura! What’s left in Astacidea? Just the clawed lobsters and the crawfish!

Family Nephropoidea (lobsters) and Family Astacoidea (crawfish)

In other words, crawfish are way closer to clawed American lobster than they are to clawless California or Caribbean spiny lobster! Perhaps Mr. Zabar has a background in marine biology, because it is actually more correct to call crawfish “lobsters” than it is to call all those tropical non-clawed lobsters “lobsters.”

All emphasis in bold type are mine

  • 1
    Nothing popped out as weird or wrong. The bottom line: To get langouste in a US restaurant, you end up needing to ask for spiny lobster, crayfish, langouste, rock lobster, sea crayfish, or another one of its names. And if you ask for lobster in Miami, you'll get spiny lobster as it is the local variety. Correct? – Denis de Bernardy May 1 '15 at 12:06
  • @DenisdeBernardy yes, I think so. Next time I'm in the States, alas it's been too long, I shall be very careful when I order or buy fresh lobster! :) – Mari-Lou A May 1 '15 at 12:09
  • 2
    Any 7-year-old in the southeastern US will tell you that the freshwater crustacean is not "crayfish", it's "crawdad". – Hot Licks May 1 '15 at 12:23
  • 1
    All I can say is that I know much more about lobsters now than I ever thought I would. As for "astice" and "aragosta", I wouldn't be surprised if they were called by different names in Sicily or Sardinia. In some larger countries quite a few animals have local names (or nicknames) in specific regions. e.g. names of fish or birds. – Centaurus May 1 '15 at 13:07
  • 1
    @HotLicks some 7 year olds. Some others say it other ways ('crawfish' or 'crayfish' even, though the latter does sound a little ... formal). How the Anglo-Normans got in to the difference I'd like to know. (i.e. what exactly ws the pronunciation difference that they had that led to the difference between cray- and craw-) – Mitch May 4 '15 at 13:38
4
+50

They look very different from one another. astice as having a .. blue colour ...aragosta .. reddish body, five pairs of legs, ...

To me it looks like a giant insect.

In English, however, they are both called lobster....

I were to invite an Italian friend to a Boston restaurant and order lobster for both of us, she might be dismayed at seeing an astice on her plate.

Hi, Mary-Lou, in your question you have all the elements you need to explain the mystery: let's start with your correct impression of a giant insect you inherited from your Latin ancestors:

The English common name 'lobster' is, as you quote,

a corruption of Latin locusta f (genitive locustae); first declension:

  1. locust, grasshopper
  2. crustacean, marine shellfish, lobster

So, the Latins thought that crustacean shellfish looked like giant insects , crickets, grasshoppers, locusts etc..., and, though the English words appear different now, they are both an adaptation of the same word ' locusta' => OE lopustre => lop[y]ster , and with the voicing of /p/, eventually = lobster . (Source: Shorter Oxford Dictionary )

The Italian word 'aragosta' derives from the same Latin word through the agglutination of the article [la locusta] => l'alocusta => aragosta. (an inverse phenomenon occurs in "all' amatriciana => alla matriciana")

The second element you need is taxonomy: the Italian language is rich in common names because it's so easy to italianize Linneus' Latin terms of scientific classification: therefore you have : aragosta, astice, omaro, palinuro, gambero di mare etc, and can distinguish families and species., the English language overcomes this handicap using qualifiers. That's almost all, but let's examine the problem in detail:

order

(...five pairs of legs...) ,The order in question is

genera

  • the genus Homarus (from which you derive 'omaro') includes two species: " the American lobster (H. americanus) and the European lobster (H. gammarus), they are very similar and may have speciated as recently as the Pleistocene, during climatic fluctuations.The best characters for distinguishing them are the geographic distribution, with the American lobster in the western Atlantic and the European lobster in the eastern Atlantic, and by the presence of one or more teeth on the underside of the rostrum in the American species"

    • the 'American lobster' is also known as true lobster, Northern lobster, or Maine lobster and it is not true that it is only red in colour, in Italian: 'astice americano'

    • the 'European lobster' , or 'common lobster' is called in Italian : 'astice' or 'astice europeo'

  • Palinurus is a genus in the family of Palinuridae, and

    • Palinurus elephas/ vulgaris is "commonly caught in the Mediterranean Sea. Its common names include European spiny lobster, crayfish or cray (in Ireland), common spiny lobster, Mediterranean lobster and red lobster..

This species is called in Italian: 'aragosta [mediterranea]'

ordering

In conclusion, as I said, Italian has different words whereas English has different qualifier: astice, omaro = true lobster, claw lobster, aragosta, palinuro = spiny lobster, rock lobster. "aragosta" has no claws, the English term is more descriptive

enter image description hereenter image description here no claws : enter image description here

If you are treating a friend in Boston you probably have no chance of getting your European aragosta, but you can order something quite similar, a Palinurus interruptus, that is a: California spiny lobster.

buonappetito!

*Note: Italian also has an individual word for Scyllarus arctus: cicala di mare = slipper/ locust lobster*

  • Thank you for your answer, I am coincidentally writing up my own answer, which is taking up considerable time. Luckily, it is quite different from yours, so they don't clash. When I have finished (if ever!) I will carefully read your post. Again, thank you for the interest you've shown in my question, and sharing your research. :) – Mari-Lou A May 1 '15 at 9:42
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    +1 bravo! Are you very knowledgeable in the field of biology? It seems you are. – Mari-Lou A May 1 '15 at 12:02
  • Let’s not forget that old scamp the Norway lobster, Nephrops norvegicus, who apparently is conosciuto come aragosta della Norvegia, gambero della baia di Dublino, langostino o scampo. This scampy N. norvegicus is considered a true lobster per this source contrasting it with a langostino, which is not. – tchrist May 3 '15 at 13:06

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