The Soft-Shell Clam Mya arenaria: Biology, Fisheries, and Mariculture

Chapter 16: Mya arenaria Linnaeus, 1758 (Mollusca: Bivalvia: Myidae): An Annotated Lexicon of English Common Names

James T. Carlton


The following is a brief synopsis, by no means complete in geographic breadth or temporal depth, of 63 common names and their variants for the soft-shell clam Mya arenaria, as well as 19 variants of a North American Algonquian name adapted into English (see mananosay, below). A full accounting of the extent and history of the English common names of Mya arenaria (mya, mussel; arenaria, pertaining to sand; see sand-mussel, in table) remains a future endeavor and would require spade-and-hoe digging into the vast regional resources of the North American Atlantic coast (since colonial times), northwest Europe (since the 1600s, if not earlier), and the North American Pacific coast (since the 1870s). These resources, the pantry of historians, would include, for example, folklore, travelers’ diaries, the arts (music and poetry among them), newspaper accounts, advertisements, restaurant menus, and cookbooks.

The earliest English common names come to us from the 1600s, both from M. arenaria’s native waters, the temperate coast of the northwest Atlantic Ocean (clam, clamm, clampe) and from its nonnative range in Europe (fleming). These were followed in the 1700s and early 1800s in Europe by gaper and sand-gaper, cowfish, and old-maid, and in North America by long-clam, piss clam, soft clam, and soft-shell clam. Over the centuries, clam (or the clam) has been long-anchored in northern New England, while long-clam is used largely (but not always) south of Cape Cod. Soft-shelled clam (and its variants) is used along much of the American Atlantic seaboard, while adaptations of native Algonquian names have lingered in the mid-Atlantic states. Variations on gaper and sand-gaper have been in steady use since the late 1700s in England.

As with all common names, there are regional signatures, but marketing names (Essex clam, Ipswich clam, Jonesport clams) have been few compared to the plethora used in the highly competitive cultured oyster industry. Similarly, size-class or grade names are rare compared to, for example, those used for the northern quahog Mercenaria mercenaria. Early size or grade names appear to have been largely abandoned for Mya arenaria, such as blue nose for a “coarse” grade in England in the 1880s, or sand clam or mud clam for different qualities in Massachusetts in the early 1900s. An exception remains in Maine, where clammers, and the businesses that purchase their clams, refer to smaller size-classes as steamers (a word also used for smaller clams in Massachusetts in the early 1900s), and larger clams (usually those greater than 9.5 cm) are referred to as honkers (Brian Beal, University of Maine at Machias, personal communication; see also the table below).