Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Attack of the giant killer jellyfish

with 19 comments

Image via Wikipedia

Jellyfish can be much maligned. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

The Guardian reported that jellyfish were ‘attacking’ people on Spanish beaches. It was shamed into retracting this scandalous accusation when a reader pointed out that jellyfish do not ‘attack’: they are simply moved by sea currents.

Using the inaccurate verb ‘attack’ is an example of both journalistic over-excitement and anthropomorphism. The former requiring temporary removal of keyboard rights and a cold shower and the latter meaning to attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals, gods or objects.

Here is Oxford Dictionaries‘ definition of ‘anthropomorphism’ and you can hear it pronounced (in an American accent) on the Merriam-Webster site.

The word derives from the Greek ‘anthrōpos’ meaning ‘human being’ and ‘morphē’ meaning ‘form’.


19 Responses

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  1. Just kill me now. You’re saying that Skippy was a fake?


    21/09/2010 at 1:03 am

    • Hi, Jo — it’s funny you should say that — apparently, Skippy was banned in Sweden because ‘psychologists’ believed that it would mislead children into thinking animals could do things they couldn’t. Not much fun going on for kids in Sweden, then.

      But to answer your question — of course Skippy wasn’t a fake.


      21/09/2010 at 8:58 am

      • The number of times they got themselves into dumb fixes, I’d guess the humans were fake.


        21/09/2010 at 12:38 pm

  2. Thanks for protecting the reputation of jellyfish! I see too that jellyfish is one word. An instructive article. Thank you.

    Sandra Lee

    21/09/2010 at 3:41 am

    • Hi, Sandra — thanks! Your mention of the spelling of ‘jellyfish’ sent me scurrying off to my dictionary to check (I just wrote it automatically as one word). And it is, indeed, one word. It’s interesting, though, because other nouns incorporating ‘jelly’ are two words (according to the Oxford Dictionary of English), including ‘jelly baby’, ‘jelly bean’, ‘jelly roll’, and ‘jelly shoe’.


      21/09/2010 at 8:48 am

      • Morning Deborah,

        I’m rather puzzled as to why “attack” is anthropomorphic.

        True, the examples given in ODE are human, but I don’t think it’s exclusively so. Lions attack – just ask a wildebeest, or an inattentive tourist – and, apparently, so do killer tomatoes.

        The Guardianista was only partly right – many species of jellyfish are mobile, like the one in your pic (they move by vigorously contracting the “umbrella”, expelling water). The notorious box jellyfish is probably the most well-known example.


        21/09/2010 at 12:02 pm

        • Hi, Ron — funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about my ‘anthropomorphic’ comment since I published it, and whether or not the way I’ve used it is strictly correct. You’re right, animals attack as well. Do jellyfish ever actually ‘attack’ though? Thanks, Ron.


          21/09/2010 at 12:11 pm

          • I guess one would have to clearly define ‘attack’; If an animal or person responds violently to an initial encounter of some sort, are they attacking or defending themselves? All the definitions of ‘attack’ that I found defined it as the initial act or provocation. Some jellyfish will instinctively sting if they are touched. Some people may call that attacking, I think the jellyfish would call it an instinctive act of survival, necessitated by some numbskull poking it (that is ermm..they were capable of logical reasoning. Like Skippy)


            21/09/2010 at 12:41 pm

            • Aah — I like the way you think. Perhaps I’m not entirely bang to rights, then. Thanks, Jo!


              21/09/2010 at 12:44 pm

  3. “Do jellyfish ever actually ‘attack’ though?”

    Yep – the box jelly in particular is an active predator.


    21/09/2010 at 12:29 pm

    • Hah. That’s me bang to rights. Thanks, Ron.


      21/09/2010 at 12:32 pm

      • Most people’s idea of a jellyfish is an inert blob, washed up on the beach or drifting with the wind and currents – the Portuguese Man o’ War actually erects a sail, hence the name – but actively swimming jellyfish are found throughout the water column though, of course, rarely seen.


        21/09/2010 at 12:43 pm

    • I never thought I’d get interested in jellyfish, but there you go. This fairly old article in The Independent seems to suggest that jellyfish do not actually attack. Here’s Peter Richardson, of the Marine Conservation Society, who is quoted in the piece:

      “Jellyfish will not purposely attack people,” Mr Richardson said. “They catch fish and other marine creatures by spreading their tentacles like fishing lines. The tentacles of some species can inflict painful stings, especially those of the lion’s mane jellyfish. The other species most commonly found in UK waters are either harmless or inflict mild stings, but you never know how an individual will react to the venom.”


      21/09/2010 at 9:28 pm

      • Conan Doyle disagreed though, with this species, a very weak swimmer, he was almost certainly wrong (from Wikipedia):-

        The Lion’s mane jellyfish appear in the Sherlock Holmes short story The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane published in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, discovers that the true killer of a school professor was actually this jellyfish. Suspicion was originally laid upon the professor’s rival in love, until the latter was similarly attacked (he survived, although badly stung).


        22/09/2010 at 10:38 am

        • I love Sherlock Holmes. The above illustrates one of his most famous maxims:

          “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

          Thanks, Ron.


          22/09/2010 at 11:20 am

  4. How often have I said to you that, when you have eliminated the principled, the humane and the compassionate, whatever remains, no matter how grotesquely despicable, must be Nick Clegg?


    22/09/2010 at 1:38 pm

    • Just remind me again, which one is he? Ant or Dec?


      22/09/2010 at 5:17 pm

      • Dunno, but you couldn’t get a fag-paper between them.

        The post with those two quotes is doing really well – touched a nerve there . . .


        22/09/2010 at 5:24 pm

        • I added the link, Ron. Hope that’s OK.


          22/09/2010 at 5:29 pm

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