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A dead cat (fish) on a line

Posted by ESC on October 04, 2002

In Reply to: A dead fish on a line posted by James Briggs on October 04, 2002

: Another plea for help!
: Today I had a request from someone in the US for the origin of 'a dead fish on a line'. He says he 'doesn't here (sic) it much any more', but he believes it to mean foul play. Not only have I no idea about the origin, but I've never heard of the phrase. Any help would be welcome, if only for my own education.

DEAD CAT ON A LINE - "Field workers for the 'Dictionary of American Regional English' found 21 people who used this expression, meaning 'there's something suspicious, something wrong' - but not one of the 21 could explain it. When William Safire asked readers of his nationally syndicated word column for help, an old man in Louisiana scrawled a letter explaining that the expression has its roots in fishing for catfish, when trotlines with many hooks on them are set in the water. The lines are checked every day, so if a fisherman checks a neighbor's line and finds a dead catfish (cat) on the line, he knows there is something wrong, suspicious or fishy going on (his neighbor may be ill, be in trouble, etc.). From Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms: Local Expressions from Coast to Coast by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 2000).

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