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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