If I understand correctly, a live fish is a "pez" whereas one cooked or otherwise ready for eating (dead) is a "pescado."

So when exactly does this transformation take place - when the fish is caught, or when it dies? If a bear is standing in a river and catches a pez, does it become a pescado as soon as he's got it in his claws, or only after he kills it by biting it?

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    I expect it has more to do with intention than with a specific moment in time. A dead fish can be a "pez muerto", and a life fish can be "pescado", depending on how you intend to use it. But that's my hunch, based on my experience with (roughly?) the same phenomenon in English with the terms pig/pork, cow/beef, etc. And the same happens in Spanish, too, with cerdo/puerco. – Flimzy Feb 11 '15 at 15:40
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    @Flimzy, I would say that "cerdo" and "puerco" are just synonyms. For "pescado" and "pez" we have the phenomenon you describe with "pork" and "pig". – Diego Feb 11 '15 at 16:23
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    @Diego: Fair enough. I've never seen a "taco/sandwich/etc de cerdo" advertised, but I have seen "X de puerco." I've heard the live animal referred to as both. But I trust you have more experience than me in this area anyway. :) – Flimzy Feb 11 '15 at 16:30
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    @Flimzy This may depend on the country or area. In Spain, we would always use cerdo for that, not puerco. Though there are a lot of local variations for that word. – Gorpik Feb 11 '15 at 16:36
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    @Flimzy "Puerco" in Spain would have nasty connotations. We also use "cochino" to refer to a pig, but unless you are having "cochinillo" you'll never see something like "Jamón de cochino ibérico". "Cerdo" is more elegant if you are going to explain what food is made of. There are other synonyms, like "chancho", that may be common in Latin America and completely unknown in Spain. – Diego Feb 11 '15 at 16:42
up vote 27 down vote accepted

I think that "pescado" is the participle form of the verb "pescar", which means "to fish", so I guess that once you fish a fish it turns from "pez" to pescado".

Pescar: Sacar o tratar de sacar del agua peces y otros animales útiles al hombre

So the difference is not that the creature is alive or cooked, it is that it has been "harvested" from the sea/river/lake/etc. by human hand.

You could see a lot of dead fish on the sea shore and you would still refer to them as "peces", not as "pescados". Once a fish is cooked or ready to be eaten supposedly it has been fished first, so it is called "pescado".

Pescado: Pez comestible sacado del agua por cualquiera de los procedimientos de pesca.

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    I very much agree with Diego. "Once a fish is cooked or ready to be eaten" is pescado. You don't say "voy a comer pez". You say, "voy a comer pescado". Although you could say "el pez grande se come al chico" (The big fish eats the smaller fish). But as humans we eat "pescado". – user8484 Feb 11 '15 at 17:36
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    The word pescado means "fished" - so once the salmon has been "fished" (caught/landed) it changes from pez to pescado. – James Feb 12 '15 at 2:06
  • Growing up I never said pez, it was always pescado even for the little goldfish I saw in bowls (usually referred to as pescaditos). Later in school we were all taught the "correct" way but most adults I know still say pescado except in formal speech. These things depend a lot on the regional dialect. – pablodf76 Jul 3 '17 at 10:26
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    Es Nemo un pescado cuando está en la pecera del dentista? – danihp Aug 9 '17 at 23:24
  • @danihp No he visto la película. Cómo llega a la pecera? Normalmente esos peces de colores (goldfish) son criados, no "pescados" (capturados en su medio natural). Si fue "sacado del agua por cualquiera de los procedimientos de pesca" se le podrá decir "pescado", aunque la asociación, dado que normalmente se les extrae para servir de alimento, es que el pescado es "comestible", y como bien sugieres, nadie se refiere a sus peces-mascota como "pescados" aunque así lo hayan sido. – Diego Aug 10 '17 at 2:12

Although Diego's answer is correct according to the D.R.A.E., in real life things are a bit more complicated. First, because Spanish pescado is primarily (or even exclusively) used as a 'mass noun' (pez, on the contrary, is always a 'count noun'). As a consequence, you will hear:

He comprado pescado (= I have bought [some] fish)

but not

*He comprado un pescado

even though, obviously, the seabass or whatever you've bought is a fish that has been fished (and is dead, etc.). What's more, 'pescado' remains a 'mass noun' even when preceded by the definite or indefinite article. Thus, at a restaurant, the maitre might tell you

Tenemos un pescado excelente (= We have excellent fish, N.B. not We have an excellent fish)

or

Les recomiendo el pescado (= I recommend you the fish)

which, of course, does not mean that he is recommending the only one fish they have! In other words, it is not quite true that a fish is un pez and a fish that has been fished is un pescado.

Furthermore, fish need not have been fished to qualify as pescado. In the area of Northern Spain where I live I have often heard fishermen complain that it no longer pays to go to sea because there is ever less pescado i.e.

No merece la pena salir a la mar porque cada vez hay menos pescado.

Significantly, they do not usually say

No merece la pena salir a la mar porque cada vez hay menos peces

(although that sentence is grammatically correct, too), probably because there surely still are millions of fish, only that most are not worth fishing, perhaps because they are too small, or not edible, or edible but belonging to species not sufficiently appreciated by the consumers to be worth commercializing, or whatever.

This suggests to me that Spanish pescado is not really fish that has already been fished, even though that is the obvious meaning of the past participle of pescar, but fish that is worth fishing, whether it has already been fished (and is on sale, or is cooked and about to be served, or is already on your plate, or in your stomach etc.) or not.

  • Just to add to the every day life type of answer....I do say "Tenemos un pescado" or "He comprado un pescado". I believe the difference (and correct usage) is just as if the fish is dead or alive. Dead=Pescado, Alive=Pez. – Matias Andina Jul 15 '15 at 20:01

Well. If we take from the old context that before there was not any common fish and now there is a bunch, saying: "pez", it would had been correct for a fish which had not before been reeled into the boat. Nowadays, if the fish is in captivity, it is already a "pescado" (since it was born in that manner). Therefore, only the fish at the sea or the river are wild a.k.a. "pez" and enclosed/caught "pescado"

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