phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Phrases, Sayings and Idioms Home > Discussion Forum

Merry wives

Posted by Word Camel on December 07, 2004

In Reply to: Re: To shriek like a fishwife posted by James Briggs on December 07, 2004

: : : I discovered this little gem over the weekend in Peter Ackroyd's "London: A Biography".

: : : Look up "fishwife" in the dictionary and it will tell you it's a monger of fish or a shrill, shrewish woman. But there is so much more.

: : : In London, fish mongers were also known as "The wives of Billingsgate". according to Ackroyd, it is thought that they were descendants of devotees of the God, Belin who was worshipped there at one time. "They dressed in strong 'stuff'gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one in distinguishable mass upon their heads." They were also called 'fish fags'. "They smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin and were known for their colourful language... A dictionary from 1736 defined a 'Billingsgate' as a scolding, impudent slut." You can almost imagine how they must have smelled.

: : : This is a great book. I only have time to pick it up ever six months or so, but it is always so rewarding. And I love London, every sooty building, damp back street. What a wonderful city.

: : : Camel

: : Are we coming full circle? The wives of Billingsgate sound a lot like ladettes.

: Billingsgate was the central London fishmarket for may years. It relocated a few years ago. I knew it reasonably well. My Grandfather was a wholesale fishmonger there. Some of his children and their children became fish porters. I worked there myself for a few weeks during summer break in my first University year (I was the very first of any of my paternal or maternal family ever to go to University. I went on to study medicine). The porters were UK famous for their foul language - I can tell you it was pretty awful. So bad was it that the expression 'to Billingsgate it' meant to swear with optimum strength. I bet some of this rubbed off onto their wives, although I never heard my grandmother swear.
: I guess Billingsgate was one of the old London gates, like Ludgate. The market was nearby.

Just as an aside, "wife" hasn't always implied married. Personally I think we all morph into them at a certain age, married or not.

Wife
\Wife\, n.; pl. Wives. 1. A woman; an adult female; -- now used in literature only in certain compounds and phrases, as alewife, fishwife, goodwife, and the like. `` Both men and wives.'' --Piers Plowman.

On the green he saw sitting a wife. --Chaucer.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998

I was also curious about Belin. He was the Celtic god of sun and war.

Camel
A merry wife of Phrase Finder.