the Diver’s dictionary

the Diver’s dictionary

by Janice Nigro

Have you ever used the words pygmy, pipe, and dragon together?  You might, if you are a scuba diver.  There is the technical aspect to diving like any sport, but to really discuss your dives, you need a whole new list of vocabulary words for the real, but fantasy-like sea creatures that you get to see.  It is almost a new language, but one you would think you would only find on Star Trek or Harry Potter.  For me, it seems somewhat cathartic when I am on a trip, and I can sit down at lunch or dinner and discuss my dives in the language of diving, almost as if it has replaced my native tongue of English.  “Then I saw this yellow-ridged ceratosoma.”  “Ha, a spotted eagle ray!”  “mmm, I saw an entire school of cownose eagle rays.”  The stakes get progressively greater in terms of novelty (although novelty does not necessarily correspond with greater size of the animal), and it seems as if through diving we have all been transported back to a time in our childhoods when it was ok to express exuberance at simple things.  At the same time, it seems like a journey into another type of geek club for me.  Although if this is my “tribe”, to use a psychological term, I am glad I belong to this one.

To develop a unique vocabulary independent of the one I grew up with is not new to me as I am a scientist.  Most of the words that I might normally use during a day at work, have no significance to non-scientists, except for the word clone.  My friends who are mostly non-divers look blankly at me when I show them my photographs and point out macro subjects such as a nudibranch.  They remember the photograph, that snail-like thing with the feathers on top, but what use would they ever have for such words?  Apparently, some non-divers do effectively incorporate these words into their vocabulary, because recently when I complained to my non-scuba diving brother, that I never see the big animals, he told me it was because I was always looking at the nudibranchs.  He was right.

When it does happen, a non-diver using vocabulary from the diver’s dictionary, it seems completely out of place.  Especially when it might be your 88-year old aunt.  My aunt had asked me to give a presentation on scuba diving and the creatures that I photograph, to her senior citizens group.  I had made a poster with some images but failed to include the names of the critters.  She left a voice message, “I found two of the animals, but I am not sure about the third.  Is it a frogfish?”  I am sure it was the first time that she had ever uttered the words frog and fish together and as a single word.

I have convinced few of my non-diving friends, who are most of my friends, to take up the sport.  One French couple that I had met on my sabbatical in Norway went on a round-the-world tour and decided finally to take a diving course in the warm and calm waters in Thailand.  She was a bit fearful, so it was a long time before they tried any dives beyond those necessary for certification.  They had to get married first, wait a year, and then honeymoon in French Polynesia.  Soon after, I received an email where she casually described an underwater scene that included the word Napoleon.  Just Napoleon, for if you speak as a diver, it is enough to know that Napoleon is short for Napoleon wrasse or Maori wrasse, a large, beautifully patterned fish.  She was using the diver’s dictionary, which now distinguished her as an underwater traveler.

Most of us are content to use the common names of critters.  It is frustrating when you look in a reef ID book and find only the Latin name or “undescribed” under the photo.  Do people really refer to a seahorse as “hippocampus”?  I can remember this one Latin name, as it is also an anatomical structure within the brain.  However, I did once meet a nice woman who could look at a photograph of a nudibranch and immediately name it, but in Latin!  She was unforgettable.  If you had a lot of photographs, though, it could begin to be an extremely laborious conversation, but one that would leave you feeling completely inadequate as a scuba diver.

Part of the fun of the common names is the adjectives used within them.  Bearded, hairy, and squat all appear in common names, but there is hardly another circumstance where you might have the opportunity to use them in what is perceived of as somewhat complimentary.  A hairy, squat lobster is one of my favorite macro creatures to see.  One way to spend time in between dives is to jumble all of your favorite adjectives to create a whole new imaginary creature.  Usually this game develops after many days of consecutive dives and perhaps to show off after a dive.  I saw a “bearded squat juvenile” fill in the blank.  Although honestly, what evolution has created underwater defies imagination most of the time.  This exercise actually had a practical purpose once when another guest on the boat proposed the outcome of a cross between a trumpet fish and a puffer fish.  These two fish have a very real relationship in nature, where the trumpet fish hides behind the puffer to surprise unsuspecting fish, but we had just observed a pair that seemed more like mates rather than a type of camouflage for a predatory situation.

Some of the words we use, do cross over into the non-diver’s vocabulary.  The word “shark”, for example.  However, if you add the adjective whale to it, many fewer people will know of exactly what you speak and even amongst divers are there only a select few who have been able to use the word in the sentence, “I have seen a whale shark.”  It is a favorite phrase to use on approach to the main boat after a dive on a liveaboard, but it is almost never true.  Seahorse is part of the English working vocabulary, but pygmy and seahorse together are not.  Winged and pipe and fish are probably three words that are never normally strung together.  In fact, “winged” probably is not even a word that comes up in the course of any conversation or book, at least not in the 21st century.  However, it exists in the diver’s dictionary.

Like a secret language, the diver’s dictionary is at your disposal to describe something ordinary in a not so ordinary way.  If you say something is like a whale shark, it could be a metaphor for something elusive, like finding true love perhaps.  Of course, it could always symbolize something really big.

Dive destinations also fall into the diver’s dictionary.  I have piles of magazines around my apartment on the topic of diving.  A casual acquaintance once asked how did I figure out where to go.  I said, “Look (pointing to the stacks), I read about places.”  You might have heard of Bali if you are a non-diver, but less likely to have read about Raja Ampat.  Many destinations are invisible with a casual glance on any world map, but Google of course now has a solution for that (find Sangeang, for example).

My diver’s dictionary is an abridged one.  And the more trips that I go on, ironically, the more I find I have left to see both above and below the sea.

What is your favorite dive destination or organism?

©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/

also published at


One thought on “the Diver’s dictionary

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  1. Hey Janice! nice article, and you talk about us 🙂 I still feel like a non-diver, at least on the vocabulary point of view. After our last dive, i said to the instructor that I saw a “flowerfish”: this fish had two “petals” around its “tail”. He laughed, and I didn’t find this fish in any of his books. I felt totally misunderstood 🙂 Anyway, nice you gave a presentation to your aunt senior group, I think you should do this for younger people as well! And great pictures again!

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