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Prawn is a common name applied to large swimming crustaceans, particularly in Britain and Commonwealth nations, which may also be referred to as shrimp. Significant commercial species, valued for their eating qualities, tend to be large, and thus tend to be called prawns. Shrimp that fall in this category often belong to the suborder Dendrobranchiata. The term is only rarely used in North America, and typically for freshwater shrimp.
In the United Kingdom the word "prawn" is more common on menus than "shrimp", while the opposite is the case in the United States. The term "prawn" is also loosely used to describe any large shrimp, especially those that come 15 (or fewer) to the pound (such as "king prawns", yet sometimes known as "jumbo shrimp").
Shrimp and prawn are vernacular or colloquial terms which lack the formal definition of scientific terms. They are not taxa, but are terms of convenience with little circumscriptional significance. There is no reason to avoid using the terms shrimp or prawn when convenient, but it is important not to confuse them with the names or relationships of actual taxa.
According to the crustacean taxonomist Tin-Yam Chan, "The terms shrimp and prawn have no definite reference to any known taxonomic groups. Although the term shrimp is sometimes applied to smaller species, while prawn is more often used for larger forms, there is no clear distinction between both terms and their usage is often confused or even reverse in different countries or regions."
A lot of confusion surrounds the scope of the term shrimp. Part of the confusion originates with the association of smallness. That creates problems with shrimp-like species that are not small. The expression "jumbo shrimp" can be viewed as an oxymoron, a problem that doesn't exist with the commercial designation "jumbo prawns".
The term shrimp originated around the 14th century with the Middle English shrimpe, akin to the Middle Low German schrempen, and meaning to contract or wrinkle; and the Old Norse skorpna, meaning to shrivel up. It is not clear where the term prawn originated, but early forms of the word surfaced in England in the early 15th century as prayne, praine and prane. According to the linguist Anatoly Liberman it is unclear how shrimp, in English, came to be associated with small. "No Germanic language associates the shrimp with its size... The same holds for Romance... it remains unclear in what circumstances the name was applied to the crustacean."
The terms shrimp and prawn originated in Great Britain. Shrimp is applied to smaller species, particularly species that are dorsoventrally depressed (wider than deep) with a shorter rostrum. It is the only term used for species in the family Crangonidae, such as the common shrimp or brown shrimp, Crangon crangon. Prawn is never applied to very small species. It is applied to most of the larger forms, particularly species that are laterally compressed (deeper than wide) and have a long rostrum. However, the terms are not used consistently. For example, some authors refer to Pandalus montagui as an Aesop shrimp while others refer to it as an Aesop prawn.
British Commonwealth countries tend to follow British usage. There are some exceptions in Australia where some authors refer to small species of Palaemonidae as prawns and call Alpheidae pistol shrimp. Other Australian authors have given the name banded coral shrimp to the prawn-like Stenopus hispidus and listed "the Processidae and Atyidae as shrimps, the Hippolytidae, Alpheidae, Pandalidae and Campylonotoidea as prawns". New Zealand broadly follows British usage. A rule of thumb given by some New Zealand authors states; "In common usage, shrimp are small, some three inches or less in length, taken for food by netting, usually from shallow water. Prawn are larger, up to twelve inches long, taken by trapping and trawling." South Africa and the former British colonies in Asia also seem to generally follow British usage.
In the United States the term shrimp is used for almost all species. Prawn is hardly ever used. Where it used, it seems to be only for small freshwater species in the families Palaemonidae and Atyidae. Shrimp is the more general term, both in Britain and in North America, but most particularly in the United States. However, the way the term prawn is used in the two regions is diametrically opposite. In Britain prawn indicates larger shrimps, while in the United States, if the term is used at all, it indicates small shrimps.