Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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Kettle of Fish

Kettle of Fish

Figuratively Speaking!

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The fat man and his friend the thin man are carrying a grandfather clock, sideways, across a busy street. “Hey Ollie,” says the thin man, “you think we can set this down for a minute?” “Why, certainly!” says the fat man. And sure enough, a truck comes roaring right through the foreground into the middle of the street, rolling over the clock and smashing it into a thousand little pieces. Bad enough, you say? Worse!

They weren’t supposed to have a clock in the first place! They had stepped into an auction, out of curiosity, and a lady bidding on the clock asked the fat man, Ollie, to hold her place for her while she went back home to fetch her money. “And don’t let anybody take it away from me!” she said. So Ollie, calling himself a southern gentleman, kept up her end of the bidding, even while his dimwit friend Stan got into it likewise, and he won the clock for $290, and of course the lady was nowhere to be found when the auction ended ten seconds later. Bad enough, you say? Still worse!

For Ollie wasn’t supposed to have the money, either! He had just taken it from the bank to pay off his and his wife’s new furniture, after she had expressly told him to leave it in the bank where it was. So they still owe for the furniture, the big clock isn’t even good for kindling, and there’s no money in the bank, and Mrs. Hardy is coming home. And that is when Ollie delivers one of his famous lines to Stan, “Well, Stanley, this is another fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten me into!”

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Figuratively Speaking, what is A kettle of fish? And why is it a bad thing to be gotten into? Well, the general idea is of some messy cooking. In Italian, you don’t get into a kettle of fish. You get into un bel pasticcio — a heck of a meat pie! And who knows what all goes into an old fashioned pasty? Gobbets of this and slubbers of that, with plenty of seasoning to help it go down. So then, if you’re in Rome and you speak as the Romans do, what are you talking about if you mention un bel piatto di pasta? An imbroglio at work? A summons from the tax men? No, not at all! You’re talking about a very nice plate of pasta, and that’s it — ravioli, fettucine, gnocchi, spaghetti, as the case may be.

But if you cross the Alps and go to Germany, you don’t get into a meat pie. You get in ein schoenes Schlamassel, a really lovely mess, as we’d say. Notice the wonderful irony, with a touch of the light-hearted. You can get into an ugly mess, and there’s nothing light-hearted about that, and no good can come from it. A lovely mess may not be so bad, or it may be even worse; but you say it with a wry grin and a glint in your eye.

"But what,” you ask, is “ein Schlamassel?” Is it a kind of haggis in the fire — and who knows what’s in a haggis? No, ein Schlamassel is a piece of very bad luck. Half of the word is Yiddish and half is German. The German half is the front end, from schlimm, meaning bad, with the original sense of being crooked or warped. The Massel is Hebrew mazel, luck, as when at a Jewish wedding you drink to the bride and groom and you toss your glass into the fire and shout, “Mazel tov!” — “Good luck!” Tov (tob) means good, so if your name is Toby, from Tobiah (Tobias), it means The Lord is good.

All right, then, what about the kettle of fish? It brings to mind a big kettle with fish in it, frying in oil, with a fish here and a fish there, all kettled up together. And since that’s what it brings to mind, and has been doing so for more than 200 years, that’s what the phrase means. And yet it probably wasn’t a kettle at all. In Scots English, a kittle or kiddle is a fish trap or weir. You make up a fence in the water, out of stakes and twigs, so that the fish swim into it, but they’re not clever enough to wiggle their way out of it. Supposing that you’ve done the job well, when you come back to the kiddle the next day, you may find a whole crazy mob of fish swimming back and forth inside it, this way and that but never getting free — a really fine kiddle of fish! And where did that word come from? Breton kidel, say the experts. Breton’s a Gaelic language still spoken, though it is fast fading, by the natives of Brittany, in France. It came over into English after the French picked it up and transported it into England with all the rest of their linguistic cargo after the Norman Conquest. There you have it: Christian descendants of Vikings, speaking their dialect of French, related by blood to English royalty, bringing a Gaelic word with them and having it enter the Germanic language of the people they conquered, giving rise to the phrase kiddle of fish, till kiddle got confused with the far more common and also appropriate kettle.

Well, you Normans — that’s another tub of suds you’ve gotten us English speakers into!

“State Cooks, or the Downfall of the Fish Kettle,” Revolutionary War Cartoon Depicting the Plight of George III. Public Domain.

From the Library of Congress Collection of Revolutionary War Cartoons

“Print shows George III and Lord North standing in a kitchen; both wear aprons; George III has his back to the fireplace. Between them, on the floor, is an overturned kettle of fish, each labeled with the name of a colony. George III says, ‘O Boreas, the loss of these fish will ruin us forever.’ North replies, ‘My honored liege, never fret. Minden & I will cook 'em yet.’ On the wall behind North is a map labeled, ‘Plan of North America’.”

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Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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