· 3 min read

Tuna Fish and Chicken Bird

Tuna Fish and Chicken Bird

“I’ll have the tuna fish sandwich.”

Did that sound weird? Probably not—at least if you’re in North America. It’s a weird quirk of American english (and not entirely uncommon in Canada) that you would order a tuna fish sandwich at a restaurant.

This classic is actually a tuna salad sandwich. Another challenging name as you rarely have the contents of the tune salad sandwich—arguably the salad part—on it’s own.

Side note: You should try the tuna salad on its own. When done well, it’s quite delicious and a healthy lunch that avoids the added carbs of the bread.

For me the tuna salad sandwich evokes the image of a roadside diner. Ironically, in that same diner, you could order a tuna melt which is another sandwich featuring the same fish. This time, no qualifier of fish required.

What is going on here? As usual, this random thought crossed my brain one day and led me down an interesting little rabbit hole.

Context is the key

Wracking my brain for another example of this type fo qualifier, I came up empty. No one orders the chicken bird sandwich for lunch.

My initial guess was that the fish was a qualifier that stuck around long after the choice fell off the menu. Imagine the diner had several choices of fish sandwich. You couldn’t simply order the fish sandwich without further clarification, “Sorry, I’ll have the tuna fish, not the salmon.”

This seemed plausible given the options for fish chips when near the Atlantic ocean. Frequently, you can choice between at least cod and haddock (always go haddock).

While this felt logical, I couldn’t find any references for this scenario. What I did find was a post on Coastal Angler Magazine about the odd tuna fish sandwich case.

This post points out that there is another edible tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. While I had heard of this particular cactus before, I did not know it had fruit, nor that the fruit was called tuna.

The position of the author the post is that the specifier tuna fish is to avoid this ambiguity.


Dubious doesn’t really cover my initial reaction. Who wrote this post? Turns out a linguist. Kevin McCarthy has an M.A in English from LaSalle College and a Ph.D in Linguistics from North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Dr. McCarthy is also a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

So, um…the cactus fruit, eh?

Why are you still thinking about this?

Interesting in its own right, this odd linguistic quirk is also an excellent example of the Peak-End Rule. This is the psychological heuristic where we tend remember the last occurrence of something and the most intense.

You’ve walked through your bedroom door hundreds of times. You’ve walked through so many that it’s near impossible to determine an accurate count. However, when you think of that door, you probably thought of the last time you walked through it and the time your stubbed your toe on it.

What stands out about our tuna fish sandwich, is that the qualifier has been added to cover the exception, not the rule.

How many times have you ordered a tuna sandwich with the intention for receiving a sandwich made from the fruit of the prickly pair cactus? Is that even a thing? Outside of the tomato, fruit sandwiches aren’t exactly a common item.

So why does the sandwich have this additional qualifier? Interestingly enough, it seems like the qualifier is dropping off. The tuna fish sandwich may be an odd linguistic quirk of a specific time and place.

It remains however a good example that people can hold on to peak experiences even when it isn’t logical.

Think of walking through your bedroom door. While the last time you walked through it may be representative of your experience—you passing through the door without really noticing—that experience should not have the same mental weight as the time you stubbed your toe.

Statistically, it doesn’t hold water. Why remember a one time exception out of thousands?

Because we’re human. This rule helps us avoid dangers. However it can also lead to decisions that aren’t supported by the data at hand.

Remember, just order a tuna sandwich…we all know you mean the fish 🐟.