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In the past, where human populations were sparse and fishing pressure modest, sea bass were simply called “bass”, meaning basically “prickly.” But in Mediterranean Europe the same species began to be named in a way that indicated intelligence. The ancient Greeks associated the fish with the word labros, or “turbulence.” Homer uses labros in reference to wind and waterbut labros as it applied to sea bass gradually came to imply cleverness. In modern Greek the concept of the sea bass as a clever fish became its defining characteristic. Today the fish is called lavraki – “the clever one.” If you wanted to indicate in modern Greek that someone had cleverly figured out something tricky and challenging, you would say that he epyase lavraki – “he caught a sea bass.”
The perception of the bass as clever occurs in other Mediterranean languages. The Romans named the fish after an animal they considered particularly intelligent – lupinus, which eventually became the French loup de mer – “sea wolf.” And the Latin poet Ovid wrote of sea bass as using its smarts to frustrate its potential captors. “In vain above the greedy [fisherman] toils,” Ovid wrote, “while with arts more exquisite the bass beguiles.”
European sea bass thus seem to have rapidly solidified their reputation for cleverness in the Mediterranean. The reason for this may be a direct product of the holiday-like environment of the Mediterranean Sea, the place where humans and sea bass had their most intense interactions. The Mediterranean occupies an exceptionally warm and dry climatic zone. Most rivers on the European continent flow away from it, meaning that, compared to other seas, the Mediterranean’s biotic systems receive few nutrients. The sea is therefore described by scientists with the Greek-derived word oligotrophic – a place that “contains little nourishment.” By the time one reaches the level of the European sea bass, both the population of fish and the size of individual fish are naturally smaller and more sensitive to exploitation than in more productive seas. Recently the Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan said that when she moved to the United States, she simply could not find the right fish for her European sea bass recipes. “Your bass are too big!” she lamented.