Fish is food. It’s wildlife. It’s a metaphor. Wait, what? 03/25/2021
Throughout human history, the humble fish has been more, much more, than food.
Historically – perhaps because it’s so central to human health and development - it has been a symbol, an outsized actor in the human imagination.
In English, we speak of fish in many expressions that are not about fish. Pinning down the origins of these idioms through the centuries in some cases was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel; in others, it presented me with a pretty kettle of fish.
So consider this article clickbait for fish, and language, lovers.
And please don’t hold me responsible if my explanations sound fishy.
“Fishy" for suspicious. As early as the 1500s, people spoke of someone being “slippery as a fish” (PD, 2020).
However, the phrase “smells fishy” seems to date to the early 1800s fish markets, before commercial ice-making devices came into use. Imagine the odor of a cluster of stalls full of spoiling products and fishmongers demanding full price…that would smell fishy indeed.
But suspicion or doubt is linked to smell in many languages—and not always fish smells. The link seems adaptive –a bad smell reminds you to slow down and inspect an item closely before eating it.
In English, our suspicion-smell link is mostly about fish. The association is so tight that English-speaking volunteers did better on critical thinking tests after getting a whiff of fish (Lee et al., 2015). Conversely, in an experiment in which scientists first made their volunteers suspicious, they became more sensitive to the smell of fish and were better at identifying odors generally (Schwartz and Lee, 2018).
"Shooting fish in a barrel" for an easy test. Before refrigeration or commercial ice, fish were packed tightly into barrels with salt. Any shot into a barrel would be guaranteed to hit at least one of them, so nothing could be easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
"Fish story" for a tall tale. An important trait of a true angler is the ability to stretch the truth -- from pressing your thumb on the scale while weighing your catch to delivering a long story at a nearby tavern about the giant you nearly reeled in. Fish stories exaggerate real events. They’re a little fishy.
"Fish out of water" for being out of your customary environment. This one seems self-explanatory. As Chaucer wrote in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, published around 1386:
...a monk, when he is cloisterless;
Is like to a fish that is waterless
In Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage, in 1613, he wrote "The Arabians out of the desarts are as Fishes out of the Water." (Martin, 2022)
A “red herring” misleads us and distracts us from the true problem. A fresh herring is silvery with white flesh underneath; it turns red or reddish when soaked in brine and then smoked, which enhances the smell.
In a 1674 book on fox hunting, the author instructs fox hunters to lay a trail by dragging a dead fox, dead cat, or red herring over the countryside. The goal may have been to train foxhounds to follow a scent. Later, some say that escaped convicts lay down red-herring trails to mislead the hounds chasing them, or that people who opposed fox hunting put down false trails so the fox could escape (Crampton, 2015).
The idiom may have been created by the journalist William Cobbett in 1807. He apparently made up a story about drawing hounds away from a hunt with a red herring and went on to say that journalists were misled in the same way by a false report that Napoleon had been defeated: “Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone” (Crampton, 2015).
A “big fish in a small pond” for an important person in a small social group or most talented person in a small group of competitors. The idiom first appeared in print in the Galveston (Texas) Daily News in 1881, though it may have been in use much earlier.
“Crabby” for cranky or irritable. Are crabs irritable? Our English word “crab” comes from the Old English “crabba.” The German root meant “to scratch or claw.” The word came to mean irritability in the late 1700s, probably as an analogy to a crab’s tendency to painfully nip with its claws, tenaciously hold on, and walk backwards and sideways, which seems anti-social behavior (though not for crabs) (Word Detective, 2021).
“Flounder” for failing, struggling or thrashing about. A flounder is a flat fish with both eyes on one side of its head. As a verb, the word means to be unsteady, uncertain, thrashing about like a just-caught fish. The origin may be the Dutch word “flodderen” (to flop about) or English “founder” (to fail). People used to say that a sunken ship or a horse that stumbled and fell to the ground had foundered. When a flounder foundered, it floundered.
“Fish or cut bait” for taking action. The phrase suggests someone wasting time, unable to take the next step. It appeared in print in 1853, when a US Attorney General named Caleb Cushing was threatening to impeach the judge presiding over Cushing’s land dispute. The judge responded that Cushing must “either fish or cut bait,” which seemed to mean that once he’d brought the case he had to abide by its outcome (Martin, 2021).
"Pretty kettle of fish" for an unexpected problem. In the 1700s, Scottish gentry gathered beside rivers and poached whole, freshly caught salmon in kettles over a fire, an event they called a “kettle of fish.” (An old-style fish kettle didn’t have a spout. It was a long, oval metal dish that often contained a rack inside.) Adding the words “pretty” or “fine” is meant sarcastically to signify the precise opposite. In the novel Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding writes in 1742: "Here's a pretty kettle of fish," cries Mrs Tow-wouse, "you have brought upon us! We are like to have a funeral at our own expense." (Crampton, 2015).
We also can’t forget Gilbert and Sullivan’s usage in Iolanthe, speaking of a Member of Parliament:
Carrying every Bill he may wish:
Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!
Kettle of fish!
Kettle of fish!
Kettle of fish! (Iolanthe, 2021)
In short, the jig is up! No point in denying it. It’s perfectly appropriate that humans have been fascinated with fish for so long, as our fates and those of our finny friends have been long intertwined.
Linguistically and otherwise, we’d founder like a beached flounder without them!
- Crabby. Word-detective.com. http://www.word-detective.com/2007/06/crabby/ Retrieved February 26, 2021.
- Crampton, L. A red herring and a fine kettle of fish: Idioms and history - owlcation - education. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://owlcation.com/humanities/A-Red-Herring-and-a-Fine-Kettle-of-Fish-Idioms-and-History Published April 14, 2015.
- Flounder. Vocabulary.com. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/flounder#:~:text=A%20flounder%20is%20a%20flat,%22do%20something%20clumsy%22). Retrieved February 26, 2021.
- Iolanthe by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. https://gsarchive.net/iolanthe/web_op/iol15.html Retrieved February 26, 2021.
- Lee D, Kim E, Schwarz N. Something smells fishy: Olfactory suspicion cues improve performance on the Moses illusion and Wason rule discovery task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103115000281?via%3Dihub Published July, 2015.
- Martin, G. 'Fish or cut BAIT' - the meaning and origin of this phrase. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fish-or-cut-bait.html
- Martin, G. 'A fish out of water' - the meaning and origin of this phrase. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fish-out-of-water.html
- Palca J. The Human Edge: Finding Our Inner Fish. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2010/07/05/127937070/the-human-edge-finding-our-inner-fish. Published July 5, 2010.
- PD, J. Fricassée of words – Something smells fishy. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://158main.com/2020/01/13/fricassee-of-words-something-smells-fishy/ Published January 9, 2020.
- Schwarz N and Lee S. The smell of suspicion: How the nose curbs gullibility. The Psychology of Gullibility. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329116674_The_smell_of_suspicion_How_the_nose_curbs_gullibility Published September, 2018.
- Wes. 27 Fish Idioms And Phrases To Use In Everyday English https://englishbyday.com/fish-idioms-phrases/ Published September 6, 2020.