Fishy sayings debunked

Ever wondered why people say they’ve “gone fishin’” rather than “gone for a walk”? Or why carp are forever associated with complaining?

Ever stood on the riverbank and wondered why angling is called angling or why a kettle of fish is such a bad thing to be in? Wonder no more.

We’ve put our heads together to come up with solutions to some common fishing sayings – so next time you’re out fishing, all you need to think about is the fish.

Gone fishin’

Gone Fishin' sign on a wooden board on a wooden door.

Image source: William Scott
So have you actually gone fishing, or not?

You’d be forgiven for thinking the meaning of the term, “gone fishin” is so obvious it’s undeserving of a mention, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Because there’s a whole lot more to the popularity of the phrase than meets the eye.

Until 1951, in America, if a shop was closed and a sign in the window stated the proprietor had gone fishing, they probably meant they’d taken their fishing equipment and  – gone fishing. But then along came Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, and recorded a little ditty called “Gone fishin’” and hey presto, the phrase passed into the mainstream. Later re-recordings by Pat Boone and Gene Autry among others helped to cement the phrase in the public imagination so that now, if you’ve “gone fishin’”, you might have headed to the river bank, or equally, you could just be taking a break!

Kettle of fish

Kettle of fish soup cooking over a campfire.

Image source: Alexpurs
The origin? Fish stew!

Two meanings in one cauldron with this one: a “fine kettle of fish” as in a bit of a pickle, and a “different kettle of fish” meaning something altogether different. But where does the phrase come from? Nobody seems to know for sure. However, like the sleuths we are, we did manage to track down a couple of possible explanations.

A kettle of fish seems to have been an 18th century innovation, possibly linked to a practice among Scottish Lairds of giving a “kettle of fish”. An outdoor picnic would be held by the banks of a river, where the nobles and their pals would wet a fly or two. To the delight of all, the catch would be cast alive into a big vessel of boiling water to be cooked and eaten.

Another explanation comes from over the pond in Newfoundland where 100 lbs of fish was called a “quintal, kintel or kental” It’s thought the word, “kettle” evolved through repeated mispronunciation.

There she blows

A sperm whale rising to the surface of the ocean to breathe in Sri Lanka.

Image source: Shane Gross
This phrase was bad news for whales.

Did you know peak oil actually occurred all the way back in 1846? Of course we’re not talking about Brent crude here, but that other oil boom of yesteryear – the sperm whale oil business. Up until the mid Victorian period, whale oil supplied lubricants and soap and was also used in the processing of textiles. But its main use was for lighting and spermaceti was the best oil money could buy. Scientists still don’t know what the oily contents of a sperm whale’s head is for, but back in the day, it was the brightest, cleanest burning oil money could buy.

A single sperm whale could supply as much as three tons of the stuff. “There she blows” was the battle cry of the whaling ship’s masthead lookout – and all too often, it spelt doom for an innocent creature. Whales were hunted to the very brink of extinction. What saved them? The invention of the light bulb.

Stop carping

A mirror carp swimming underwater on a hot day.

Image source: Kletr
Poor carp have an unjustified reputation as a nag.

Ever been told (or told someone) to stop “carping”? Ever wondered what the poor old carp has done to deserve its reputation as a nag and a moaner, whilst really just trying to avoid your carp fishing tackle? The answer? Nothing. That’s because the verb “to carp” actually has nothing at all to do with the fish of the same name.

In fact, “carping” comes from Middle English – a form of English that was in use from the 12th to the 15th century. It was the lingo of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales and developed from Old English after the Norman invasion. In Middle English, the word was “carpen” or “to speak”, and this came from an even earlier old Norse word, “karpa”, which meant “to brag”. Relax – it’s not the fishes fault!

Angling

Old fashioned drawing of a man angling.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Richard III is to thank for angling.

Here’s a riddle: What has angling to do with a car park in Leicester? For the answer we need to travel back in time to the late 15th century and the very late, King Richard III. Before the murderous monarch cried, “my kingdom for a horse,” (according to Shakespeare anyway) was gruesomely killed and buried in what became a carpark, he may well have told his squire to pack some sandwiches, his fishing rod and an angle or two for a day’s fishing.

An angle is middle english for apex or tip, fishing is fishing, but fishing with a hook is angling. An angle is a fishing hook.