Fishy Expressions

By Maeve Maddox

The Venerable Bede (c.672-735) tells this story about Bishop Wilfrid’s conversion of the South Saxons in the 680s:

When the Bishop first came into the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and the rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea so that, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds.

As the sea and rivers of Bede’s description abounded in fish, the English language abounds in expressions related to fish and fishing. Here are just a few.

1. to drink like a fish: to drink to excess.
2. to feed the fishes: to die by drowning.
3. to feel like a fish out of water: to feel out of one’s comfort zone.
4. to fish for compliments: do or say things to elicit praise from others.
5. to sound fishy: to seem dubious or suspicious.
6. All is fish that comes to his net: He makes use of everything that comes his way.
7. Fish or cut bait!: Make a decision one way or another.
8. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime: a proverb meaning that it’s more useful to a person to teach him how to do something for himself than to give him a hand-out.
9. There are plenty of other fish in the sea: a comforting remark made to someone who has broken up with a sweetheart.
10. a pretty kettle of fish: an awkward situation or state of things.
11. big fish in a small pond: someone important in a small community
12. cold fish: an unemotional person
13. Fisher King: in Grail legend, the Fisher King is the uncle of Sir Perceval. He suffers a grievous wound that cannot heal until he is asked the right question.
14. Fisherman’s ring: a seal ring presented to a pope upon taking office. The ring is used to seal official documents; when the pope dies, the ring is broken. The apostle Peter, who was a fisherman, is regarded by the Catholic Church as having been the first pope.
15. fishing expedition: an attempt to elicit information by asking random questions.
16. fishwife: literally, a woman who sells fish; figuratively, a loud vulgar woman who shouts abuse
17. queer fish: an eccentric person

I’ll leave fish-related expressions involving mackerels, herrings, sardines, and gills for another time.

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7 Responses to “Fishy Expressions”

  • Lon

    Just my experience, but I’ve not heard this meaning of “to feed the fishes.” In _The Godfather_ (Mario Puzo), it is used to describe a person who is murdered, then dumped in the river.

  • Didier

    Another one “To have bigger or other fish to fry” .

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Lon: “to feed the fishes” does not necessarily mean to die by drowning.
    For example, a sailor on the deck of a ship could be killed by the machine guns of a strafing warplane – or by a sharpshooter on another ship – and thus be blown overboard or thrown overboard.
    The sailor was killed by the bullet(s), but his body became food for the fish of the sea.
    Likewise, a wounded aviator could bail out of an aircraft over the sea, but die on the way down, thus falling into the water and becoming “sharkbait”.
    As Lon said, someone could be murdered on dry land, and then his/ her body deposited into a river, lake, harbor, or bay. It could be that Jimmy Hoffa became “fishbait” in some river or lake, and especially since he died in eastern Michigan, close to Lakes Huron, St. Clair, and Erie, and the St. Clair River and the Detroit River.

    There is a huge suspension bridge that connects the Lower Peninsula of Michigan with the Upper Peninsula. I have read about a case in which a woman was driving her Volkswagen over that bridge on a quite windy day. Her car never reached the far end of the bridge. I don’t know if there were any eyewitnesses, but the best deduction is that her car was blown over the guardrails at the edge of the bridge, and thence it plunged into the Strait of Mackinac below. Neither the woman nor her car was ever seen again, and it is reasonable to suppose that her body became feed for the fishes.
    I do believe that people who set out to explain what words mean and to give definitions really need a lot of knowledge about how the world works and how things really happen. To leave such tasks to people who have only studied languages is an open invitation to omit important items and to make mistakes.
    Of course, I believe that everyone needs a good deal of education in the sciences, mathematics, technology, and computers. On the other hand, what a see is a lot of people who think that 2 + 2 = 5.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Lon and Dale,
    Yes, “to feed the fishes” has the underworld sense of disposing of a murder victim into a body of water. It can also mean “to throw up into the water as a result of seasickness.”

    As much as we would like for words and expressions to have just one meaning, language doesn’t work that way.

  • Pup

    Another fish to fry?

  • Lon

    Actually, I had that wrong, it’s “sleeps with the fishes”. But nowhere did I suggest that words and expressions have just one meaning. Where did you get that?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Lon again:
    “nowhere did I suggest that words and expressions have just one meaning. Where did you get that?”

    Lon and I both said that there are additional meanings of “to feed the fishes” besides to die by drowning, including a dead aviator or dead sailors falling into the ocean. Sometimes warships sink into the sea with dead sailors or aviators already on board.
    D.A.W.

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