Posted by Word Camel on December 06, 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.