The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Fish Story
The naming of ships in the United States Navy has a complex set of guidelines that has evolved over time. In the early years, there were no set rules. Vessels were named after people, places, character traits, and even insects. In 1819, Congress assigned the job to the Secretary of the Navy and defined certain classes of ships to be named after states, rivers, and cities and towns. Submarines became part of the Navy in 1900 and initially had no naming guidelines. Soon, however, submarines were named after "fish and land creatures that sting." With the rapid advancement in technology and the numerous submarines being built, the names evolved into a letter and numbering scheme. In 1931 they were again designated a naming category, but this time it was to be "fish and denizens of the deep." This convention was followed faithfully (with only 2 exceptions) until 1947 when the Secretary said that submarines should be named after famous World War II boats. But since most of these World War II vessels were named after fish, the naming did not change much in practice. However, with the increase in the types of submarines and the ideas of various Secretaries in subsequent years, these guidelines were often altered as it suited the moment's needs. (For more information about the naming of Naval ships, see "A Report on Policies and Practices of the U.S. Navy for Naming the Vessels of the Navy").
In 1958, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published a humorous account by Captain William F. Calkins, USNR, of his experience with naming ships in his position as Special Assistant to the Chief of Naval Personnel during World War II. It fell to the Chief to provide naming recommendations from which the Secretary could choose. During this time, the naming of submarines still followed the convention of "fish and denizens of the deep," so Captain Calkins often consulted the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) for assistance.
Captain Calkins described the many difficulties involved in choosing a name for any vessel. The names could not be similar to another ship's name currently in the fleet and it had to be appropriate, i.e. not something that would easily be made fun of. In addition: "Spelling and pronunciation both had to be reasonably simple. The average enlisted man (and his girl friend) must be able to say the name comfortably. If his best girl couldn't spell it, he might not get her letters."
This proved a problem with fish names since ichthyologists like to use Latin names. The most common and recognizable names were used up fast leaving him to come up with some creative workarounds, such as names in different languages for the same fish type. The fleet was growing so fast that sometimes a popular fish name was created and then assigned to an already existing scientific name in order to have something more pronounceable.
Smithsonian Institution ArchivesAccession 12-530 is a small collection of correspondence between staff in the Division of Fishes and members of the U.S. Navy. Smithsonian curators would provide the requesting commander with information and pictures of the fish for which his ship was named. The letter and photograph were often hung onboard, and the sailors took pride in knowing about the ship's namesake.
- Frequently Asked Questions about Submarines, Submarine Welfare Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations
- A Report on Policies and Practices of the U.S. Navy for Naming the Vessels of the Navy, Department of the Navy
- Accession 12-530 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Fishes, Correspondence, 1943-1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives