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The meaning and origin of the expression: A fish rots from the head down

A fish rots from the head down

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A fish rots from the head down'?

When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A fish rots from the head down'?

This proverb is of ancient origin but precisely which of the ancients coined it is probably beyond our ken at this distant remove.

Fish rot from the head downMany countries lay claim to it. I've seen sources that place it in China, Russia, Poland, England, Greece and so on, but usually with no evidence to substantiate those claims. A correspondent of mine has asserted that it was written in a Greek text by Erasmus, who died in 1546. That may be the case, but I've not been able to substantiate that claim.

All of the early examples of the phrase in print in English prefer the variant 'a fish stinks from the head down' to 'a fish rots from the head down', which is more popular nowadays. Those early examples all ignore the nations mentioned above and credit the term to the Turks. Sir James Porter's Observations on the religion, law, government, and manners of the Turks, 1768, includes this:

The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions: they say "the fish stinks first at the head", meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.

The early date of this citation and the fact that Porter was in a position to be authoritative on Turkish custom, being British ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire for 15 years in the second half of the 18th century, gives Turkey a strong claim to be the birthplace of this proverb.

The poet Rumi, who died in Turkey in 1273, included this line in the Third Book of Masnavi, which was one of six books of poetry written in the 13th century:

Fish begins to stink at the head, not the tail.

Of course, the above is a translation of the original Persian text which was published centuries later but, if the translation is accurate and literal, then Rumi has a strong claim to have originated the expression.

The proverb isn't a lesson in piscine biology. The phrase appears to have been used in Turkey in a metaphorical rather than literal sense from the outset. That's just as well as, in reality, it is the guts of fish that rot and stink before the head.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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