Following is a summery of common names for crabs in the genus Uca. See individual species for more information on the common names of a particular species.
The common English term “fiddler crab” appears to have originated on the East coast of the United States (or more precisely, among the English speaking residents of the British colonies that eventually becamse the U.S.). Although the name is commonly used in English, many people are unaware of why the name is applied to these crabs. Field observation makes it obvious that the name derives from the motion of the small claw when male crabs are feeding. The constant movement of the small claw from the surface to the mouth and back makes it appear as if the crab is moving a bow across the large claw (the fiddle). As is shown below, over time many scientists have struggled to come up with an explanation for this name, with mistaken interpretations at times carrying over from person to person.
The earliest mention of this name appears in John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina, published in 1709 (and republished as The History of Carolina in 1714) (p. 121):
There is a sort of small Land-Crab, which we call a Fiddler, that runs into a Hole when any thing pursues him.
and again (p. 162):
Fidlars are a sort of small Crabs, that lie in Holes in the Marshes. The Raccoons eat them very much. I never knew any one try, whether they were good Meat or no.
A century later, in discussing Ocypode pugilator (Uca pugilator), Thomas Say (1817) reports (p. 72):
This is the animal so well known to the inhabitants of the sea coast under the name of “Fiddler,” an appellation almost universal, and probably derived from a supposed similitude between the large hand of the male and the fiddler or violin.
Note that he associates the name with the large claw, but without the motion—a half-correct answer we will see again. Gould (1841) has a similar explanation when discussing the crab Gelasimus vocans (likely both Uca pugilator and U. pugnax) in Massachusetts (p. 325):
It is well distinguished by its large claw, which is sometimes on the right side and sometimes on the left, and has gained for it the name of the “Fiddler Crab.”
De Kay (1844) uses the term with respect to the same species in New York, but with a slightly different explanation (p. 14):
The movable finger is curved, and extends somewhat beyond the tip of the other, which is almost straight ; from this results a figure somewhat resembling the bow of a violin, and has probably suggested its popular name of Fiddler Crab.
His explanation of the origin of the name is unusual: that the curving dactyl on the large claws looks like the bow over the violin (the pollex and manus).
In the book Crab, Shrimp, and Lobster Lore (1867), William Lord reports a different spin on the fishermen's perception of the fiddler crab (p. 29-30):
These are the swimming Crabs, of which there are numerous species. These differ materially from the kinds we have described, in habits, appearance, and structure. By the use of their powerful oar-like legs they are enabled to propel themselves through the water with great rapidity and precision, and by darting among the meshes of the fishing-nets they becomes so helplessly entangled, that a “Fiddler Crab” (as it is sometimes called from the rapidity with which it works its elbows) in a transel net, is often used by fishermen as a standard with which to compare the cases of the most utter bewilderment.
Mark Twain also references them in Chapter 48 of Life on the Mississippi (1883):
The drainage-ditches were everywhere alive with little crabs—‘fiddlers.’ One saw them scampering sidewise in every direction whenever they heard a disturbing noise. Expensive pests, these crabs; for they bore into the levees, and ruin them.
At some point a number of authors come to the erroneous conclusion that the name comes from the waving of the large claw (a concept that makes little sense if one thinks about it). In his 1886 book The Standard Natural History, John S. Kingsley states (p. 64):
When these crabs are disturbed their claws are brandished in an amusing manner, strikingly suggestive of the motions of a violinist, whence these forms have received the common name of “Fiddler Crabs.”
Angelo Heilprin makes an even more confusing explanation in his 1888 book The Animal Life of Our Sea-Shore (p. 82).
When provoked, the animal brandishes this claw in a somewhat threatening manner, which has been likened to the pulling of a violin-bow—hence the name of 'fiddler'—and by others to the action of beckoning or calling (hence 'calling crabs').
And again in Johnson and Snook's book, Seashore Animals of the Pacific Cost (1927), p. 400:
The males are frequently seen to brandish the large claw in a peculiar way. First, they reach out with it as far as it will go, then they bring it toward the body with a sudden movement. This motion which has probably suggested the name “fiddler” crab is carried on during the breeding season and is persecuted more vigorously when a female crab is nearby.
Similar confusing claims are made by Boyce (1924), while Boone (1927) returns to the resemblance of the large claw (without associated motion) (see quotes under “Calling Crab” below).
By 1888, Kingsley changes his explanation to a more sensible one in in a paper in The American Naturalist (p. 889-890):
When you draw near the beach where these crabs are abundant, no matter how cautiously you have approached, there is a hurried rush of myraids of these crabs, each scuttling away as fast as four pairs of legs will carry it, to a a place of safety. At such a time the appropriateness of the common name is seen. In every direction are the fiddlers, each playing its small claw across the enormous fellow in the most amusing manner. No matter how often seen, one cannot help thinking of the musician—usually bald-headed—away down to the left of the orchestra, who so vigorously saws the bass notes from the viol. Let the latter scamper away, viol and all, as rapidly as does the crab, and the simile would be complete.
Paulmier (1905) gives a similar explanation (p. 148):
These three species are commonly known as “fiddlers”; for, when running over the beach with the large claw held out in front of them and the small one sawing in front of it, they ludicrously resemble a man carrying a bass viol.
Some non-English speakers have picked up this term and translated fiddler crab into their own language, such as Cangrejo Violinista in Latin-American Spanish and Caranguejo Violinista in Brazilian Portuguese.
Less commonly used in English, the term “Calling Crab” derives from one of the earliest scientific papers to include these crabs, Rumphius (1705). Rumphius names one of his species Cancer vocans which is Latin for “calling crab” or “gesturing crab.” He also reports the name “Cattam Pangel” which appears to most likely be a form of Malay meaning “summoning crab,” and is probably from where he derived the Latin name.
The Latin name Cancer vocans (today Uca vocans) was adopted by Linnaeus (1758) and became the general name under which this group was known in Continental Europe. By 1778, writing in French, DeGeer uses the French translation of this term “Crabe appellant,” which appears to become a general term for all of these crabs, not just the single species. Similarly, writing in German, Herbst (1782) builds off the German word “winken” (which means wave, beckon, signal or hail) to call two versions of these crabs “Der kleine Winker” and “Der grosse Winker” (essentially “the little waver” and “the great waver”). Eventually, the entire group of crabs becomes becomes known as Winkerkrabbe (waving crabs) in German.
The term does find its way into English, such as Gosse (1851) discussing Jamaica (p. 50-51):
At this time it is seen to be pierced with innumerable little holes; and hundres of a tiny Calling-crab (Gelasimus vocans) are running over its surface, the males of which hold up their enormous claws in front, as if in defiance. At the approach of an intruder, every one hastens into his burrow, and in a moment the muddy bank, that was alive with the moving atoms, is perfectly still…The little Crabs are very swift and wary, so that it is difficult to capture them, except by making a sudden rush from a distance among them.
or Tennent (1861) in Sri Lanka (p. 477-478):
...the nimble little Calling Crabs scamper over moist sands, carrying aloft the enormous hand (sometimes larger than the rest of the body), which is their peculiar characteristic, and which, from its beckoning gesture has suggested their popular name.
or Paulmier (1905) in New York (p. 148):
The old specific name vocans was given them because, when the tide was out, they appeared to stand on the beach and wave their great claws, calling it back again.
Boyce (1924) prefers “Calling Crab“ to “Fiddler Crab”, at least in part due to his misunderstanding of where “Fiddler Crab” comes from (p. 250):
The enlarged chela is constantly being waived in the air as if beckoning or calling, and this has suggested the term Calling Crab. The alternate name, Fiddler Crab, is less appropriate, for the movement is really not suggestive of the action of a violinist drawing the bow across the strings.
Boone (1927) also explains both names:
The odd aspect of this group of crabs, resulting from the strikingly disproportionate size attained by one of the claws in the male and the curious manner in which the little creatures handle the claw, has been a source of comment among the peoples of many lands, which has found expression in a series of quaint common names. Among English-speaking folk, it is known as the “calling crab” because it seems to be forever beckoning with its huge claws. Another name, and the one by the way, most widely used among the coasts of the southern United States is “fiddler” crab, from the fancied resemblance of the great claw to this musical instrument.
In 1835, de Haan (writing in Latin) reports that the crab he calls Ocypode (Gelasimus) arcuata (today Uca arcuata) is known as “Siho maneki” in Japanese (シホマネキ). He translates this into Latin as “maris refluxum annuens.” This has generally been translated into English as “beckoning for the return of the tide” or “tide caller.”
This term is first mentioned in English by Boone (1927) (p. 273):
The Japanese have woven a legend around the species of Uca common in Japan, and give it the name Siho maneki, which means “beckoning for the return of the tide.”
Ricketts & Calvin copy this in their book Between Pacific Tides (probably in the original 1939 edition, but definitely by the revised edition of 1948). For example, in the fifth edition (1985), on p. 356:
The Japanese call the fiddler crab siho maneki, which translates as “beckoning for the return of the tide.” It is too picturesque a name to quibble over, but one might reasonably ask why Mahomet does not go to the mountain, for the presumably free-willed fiddler digs its burrow as far away from the tide as it can get without abandoning the sea entirely.
Today there is a slight difference in the Japanese spelling (シオマネキ vs. シホマネキ) (note 2nd character) and English transliteration (“shio-maneki” vs. “siho-maneki”) than presented by de Haan and subsequent authors. I do not know if this change is due to the way we transliterate or represents an error by de Haan (1835) which carried over to later authors.
Brazilian Portuguese, translating to “tide recaller” in English. Not sure if this derives from the Japanese or if it independently evolved.
Translates to “master tailor” in English. Rathbun (1911, 1918) reports this as a local name for Uca princeps in Peru. Likely derives from the same feeding motion that gave rise to “fiddler crab,” with the motion of the small claw looking like someone rapidly sewing stitches.
Boone (1927) also reports on this term (p. 273):
To the Peruvians these crabs are known as “maestro-sastre,” (master-tailor). Long before the coming of Columbus to the New World, these little crabs were woven in the folk-lore of the Indians who dwelt along the coast.
Common name on Jamaica. Appears to come from the superstition that deafness and earache could be cured by pouring the juice from a crushed living crab into the ear. Rathbun (1918) reported hearing this story from P.W. Jarvis of Kingston, specifically in reference to Uca rapax. Barnwell (1986) reported that the name was generally applied to all fiddler crabs, although modern day residents didn't know the significance, the name apparently having stuck while the folklore apparently was lost.
Henderson (1893) reports this as the local name on the eastern coast of India, near Madras (p. 329):
Locally the Gelasimi are known as “dhobi crabs,” doubtless from the resemblance of their beckoning movement to the manner in which the native washerman swings the clothes over his head in the act of pounding them against a flat stone.
This name is also mentioned by Gravely (1927) as “Dhobie Crabs.”