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Shrimp: A Different Take On An Old Word


Let us take a long hard look at the word ‘shrimp’. Where does it come from? Where is it used? What does it mean? For most of us, the term shrimp is synonymous with shrimp cocktail or shrimp scampi, and now with the glorified fishing shows on television, maybe even commercial shrimp. It is a term generally applied to cooking and recipes – a food that now feeds millions of people around the world thanks to new technologies in farming. Searches through the internet show much more interest in the term when it comes to recipes and cooking than anything else.

As a term, through history, shrimp has meant many different things. It can describe an animal in the marine and aquaculture environments, even though it is referred to as prawn in many European regions and other areas outside the United States. Shrimp can also define the size or significance of someone or something, like a disparaging reference to someone’s size as “little.” Another example would be how the word is used to describe an action, like; “to shrimp,” as in meaning “to fish.” As a verb, the term shrimping is used to describe the act of catching shrimp, which is accomplished using nets from boats or while wading. Much to my dismay, there is even another meaning for the term shrimping used in the adult pornography industry, but I’ll steer clear of that one. In this article, I will examine the different meanings of the term shrimp, some history to describe where it came from, and some examples of how shrimp has been used in popular culture.


The word shrimp came from England somewhere between the 11th and 15th centuries. Derived from the word shrimpe, it meant pygmy. Dating as far back as the 14th century, Marco Polo spoke of shrimp as being a primary source of food in China. As an animal, shrimp fossils have been found in areas once known as Gondwana, a super-continent that was comprised of Antarctica, Australia, South America, and Madagascar, that existed 300 million years ago. The shrimp has always been a major food source for birds, fish, and whales for millions of years, and more recently for humans. The consumption of shrimp picked up dramatically in the 1970’s with the help of shrimp farming which was designed to help sustain both the wild stock, and food supplies around the world to help fight global hunger. Although some would argue that the real reason for shrimp farming was supply and demand in the U.S., the fact remains it has helped to alleviate the effects of famine in some parts of the world. Shrimp, as food, has had a major impact on global economies for at least the last 30 years.

Shut Up! You’re a shrimp!

How many times have you heard this? As the eldest of three Mom-terrorizing brothers, I remember calling my younger siblings shrimps because they were considerably smaller than me. By the time I reached my early 20’s however, they somehow outpaced my physical stature during their high school years and shortly thereafter the name calling stopped abruptly. I always felt lucky they did not reciprocate those early sentiments from our youths.

Tracing back the term shrimp as a way to insult someone, I have found few references as to where this actually started. This surprised me because of how often it was used during my childhood, and is still used, although sparingly, today. There are a few good sources though, that help shed some light on the subject. One of which is related to modern-day bullying. According to the Pacer Center’s Kids Against Bullying, ways for children to combat bullying would include responses to “You’re a shrimp!” and “You’re still a shrimp!” with humor or honesty to give the bully nowhere else to go, essentially stopping the bully in his or her tracks. I’m not sure how well this works, but with children of my own, it might be worth spending some quality time on the subject just in case.

Thinking back to the mid 1970’s, I can vaguely recall my father referring to someone as a shrimp. Maybe it was me, or one of my brothers, but I remember the insult more as a “poke fun of” type of name calling, than a serious insult based on real anger. I was never very tall in high school. At 5′-10″ I was about average height and build, but I had a lot of friends that were considerably shorter than I was. One in particular, Steve, was one of my best friends through elementary and middle school. He stood around 5′-4″ in high school but was never known as someone that carried a Napoleon Complex. I cannot recall calling him a shrimp, but I wonder now what he would have done if I had.

Full Metal Alchemist is a Japanese manga (comic/cartoon) with very good reference to being a shrimp, and another good example of why insults don’t work. The story takes place in a fictional universe where alchemy is the most advanced form of science known to man, and focuses on the plight of two brothers trying to restore their bodies after failing to bring their mother back to life. One of the brothers lost one of his legs, and is then often referred to as “little,” “shorty,” “midget,” or “shrimp.” The brother’s angry response is then usually “I’m the younger brother.” The story has become so popular around the world, there are fan-based websites dedicated to it, and sales of the publication exceeded 50 million USD in 2010. Yes – I’m talking about a comic book.

With a little research, it’s fairly easy to see how the term shrimp was defined by the peoples of Europe. It’s much harder however, to determine at which point in history the word shrimp became synonymous with short people.

Shrimp Fun

Cafepress.com, a website dedicated to finding and making unique t-shirts and gifts has a line of products imprinted with the term “Please don’t call me a shrimp.” Assuming this is meant in gist, and not some sort of political agenda, I believe they are related to the subject content I’m writing here. If you look hard enough, it’s not hard to still find references to shrimp as a form of insult, even in 2011.

Out of all this, I’ve even found some funny shrimp jokes:

Why wouldn’t the shrimp share his treasure? Ans: Because he was a little shellfish.

Did you hear about the shrimp that went to the prawn’s cocktail party? Ans: He pulled a mussel.

A shrimp walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “I’m sorry, but we don’t serve food here…”

Hollywood Shrimp

“Throw another shrimp on the barbie.” In popular culture in the mid 1980’s, this was the saying the Australian Tourism Commission started in a series of advertisements featuring the actor, Paul Hogan. In his 1986 hit, Crocodile Dundee, the story took place in both Australia and New York City, and was based on the actual true life of Rodney Ansell. With a budget under $10 million USD, it went on to make more than $328 million USD and become the second-highest grossing film that year.

In the Muppets, Peppy the King Prawn, whose full name is actually, Pepino Rodrigo Serrano Gonzales, started out as a chef before moving to Hollywood. He is a heavily Spanish-accented character who is very proud of his prawn ancestry and takes offense to anyone calling him a shrimp, okay?

Forrest Gump, another famous character from Hollywood, wowed millions with his lack of wit and good intentions. In the movie, Forrest makes true to his commitment to a friend (Bubba) killed in Vietnam to become a shrimp boat Captain. With the help of a freak storm that put all of his competition out of business, Forrest became the proud owner of Bubba Gump Shrimp and made millions. Forrest Gump was played by Tom Hanks.

Michael “Boogalo Shrimp” Chambers is another actor from Hollywood known as “Turbo” from the 1984 film Breakin’. His nickname came from the popular art of break and robot dancing in the early and mid 1980’s. Yeah, I can’t really promote it any more than this.

In the Nickelodeon hit, Drake & Josh: Really Big Shrimp, two brothers are on the verge of signing a major record deal, but because of Josh’s inability to stay focused on the content of the contract, due to being distracted by very large shrimp, he signs away the rights to Drake’s song.

Obviously, I have not included everything related to shrimp in this article. For one, I purposely discounted anything to do with recipes. There are millions of shrimp recipes floating around the internet (I counted them) and I wouldn’t dare venture to list my favorites because I’ve yet to try one I didn’t like. I also stayed away from fishing and shrimping as much as I could, but the problem with both of these, recipes and commercial shrimping, is that 99 percent of the information on the internet is based on these two topics. I guess the main reason I wrote this article is to bring some attention to the other types of shrimp out there, and how the word itself is used.

To see the pictures associated with this article, and all references, visit: http://www.ShrimpHQ.com



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