Something’s Fishy

By: Dana Sackett
To kick-off the New Year, I wanted to share something fun, and what’s more fun than fish idioms! You may be wondering: what’s an idiom? An idiom is a figurative expression such as “big fish in a small pond” or “fishing for a compliment.” Some fish expressions are relatively obvious in their meaning and origin (e.g. packed in like sardines, a fish out of water, slippery as a fish) while others may surprise you.


Some examples of fish idioms. Source:

For instance, you may wonder if “shooting fish in a barrel” was ever a popular activity? This common idiom often describes an effortless or simple task.  It likely comes from the days before refrigeration when fish were packed to the rim and stored alive in large barrels. Thus, any shot that entered the barrel would hit at least one fish. Mythbusters tested this expression in 2007 and found that if the bullet did not kill the fish the shockwave from the bullet would.

A play on the idiom, shooting fish in a barrel. Source:

A “red herring” is an expression often used to describe a distraction from an issue or used in literature to lead readers to a false conclusion. You may be interested to know that there is no such fish as a red herring. Instead, dating back to the 13th century, red herring was used to refer to the way a fish (typically a herring) was prepared and cooked: strongly cured in brine and heavily smoked, creating a very pungent smelling fish with reddish skin.


Red herring first referred to the way fish were cooked, resulting in a strong smelling fish with reddish skin. Source:

Some have suggested that red herrings were used in training young hounds to follow a scent and later when trained, they were used as a distraction to the dog to ensure the dog would continue to follow the correct (prey) scent rather than the stronger red herring scent. Another theory suggests that escaping convicts would use red herrings to throw off hounds in pursuit.



The hunting practice was referenced in a pamphlet published in 1599 by Thomas Nashem, though the first popular reference to a “red herring” as an idiom was published by journalist William Cobbett when the English press mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat. Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of prey, and he suggested that the misreport was a political red-herring.


The expression, “drink like a fish” came about because many fish swim with an open mouth and look like they are continuously drinking. Fishery biologists, however, know that only marine fish drink constantly (to replace much needed water that is lost to the environment because of the salt imbalance between marine fish and the ocean). Source:

“Holy mackerel” is an exclamation of surprise or amazement now, but it may not have started out that way. Though this expression was recorded in 1803, it did not become popular until the late 1920s. Many suggest that holy mackerel originated as a derisive reference to Catholics since a slang term for Catholics at that time was “mackerel-snappers.” This saying came about because of the Catholic custom of eating fish instead of other meat on Fridays and because mackerel were cheap, making it a fish poor Catholic immigrants could likely afford. It has also been suggested that “holy mackerel” was modeled after Holy Mary, Holy Mother or Holy Michael.



“Fish or cut bait” is another common expression, dating back to the 19th century, that advises for quick decision-making. The original version of the expression comes from fishermen who literally had to decide who is to fish, and who is to cut the bait. The United States Service Magazine in 1856 contained an early example of the expression: “The time had come when, as the mackerel fisherman said to his passengers, they must do one of three things: Fish, cut bait, or go ashore.”

Many do not realize that the original meaning of “cut bait” in the expression, “fish or cut bait” was to literally cut bait. Source: 


The meaning of “cut bait” has evolved in recent years to imply “giving up” on something, or “act now or stand down”. This variation stems from an alternative interpretation of “cut bait” meaning to cut one’s fishing line. This version of the expression is now so common that it is the primary definition for the idiom.
Since the 16th century people have referred to something of distaste by comparing it to the smell of decaying fish. The bad smell comes from a chemical released when fish break down called, trimethylamine. Source:

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kevin Frank says:

    That was way more interesting than I first thought it was going to be. Nice post.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yes, that was informative and fun. Thanks, Dana.

  3. Catholics didn't eat fish because it was cheap, it was because the Pope decreed it: the original thinking (like, medieval style) was that red meat was “hot,” and therefore encouraged all kinds of immoral, carnal thoughts and behaviors. Fish, in contrast, was “cold,” and therefore safe for holy days.

    Desperation to eat something besides fish (there used to be a lot of holy days), enabled by shoddy zoology, led to some interesting conclusions. For instance, some declared geese to be fish, because (as everyone knew) they grow from barnacles.

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