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The meaning and origin of the expression: Kettle of fish

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Kettle of fish

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Kettle of fish'?

The expression 'a kettle of fish' is usually part of the phrases 'a fine kettle of fish', 'a pretty kettle of fish' etc, which mean 'a muddle or awkward state of affairs'.

The phrase 'a different kettle of fish' has a separate meaning, which is, 'an alternative; a different thing altogether'.

See here for the meaning and origin of 'a different kettle of fish'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Kettle of fish'?

Being English, I have a close association with kettles; essential equipment for a custom in which the English can still claim world dominance, the making of 'a nice cup of tea'.

Here's where we get into hot water, so to speak. There are two opposing strands of thought as to what the kettle in 'a pretty kettle of fish' is. Let's look at them both.

1. Kettle = fish kettle

A pretty kettle of fishFish kettles are the long saucepans that have been used since the 17th century to poach fish, especially large fish like whole salmon.

In 1785 Thomas Newte published A Tour in England and Scotland. In this he referred to fish kettles:

"It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre, which they call giving 'a kettle of fish'. Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river... a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles."

So, if we take Newte's word for it the kettle in the expression 'a kettle' of fish' is clearly the cooking implement a fish kettle.

Incidentally, and just to go off at a tangent for a moment, the two meanings of the verb 'poach', which are 'steal game' and 'cook by simmering in water', both derive from the French 'pocher', which means 'put in a bag'. The 'stealing game' meaning is pretty obviously connected with putting game into bags. The 'cook by boiling' is less intuitive and derives from the poaching of eggs, in which the egg white forms a pocket for the yolk. So, if a ne'er-do-well were to illegally take a salmon from a river and boil it for his tea, he would be poaching in both senses.

The French term fête-champêtre, meaning 'rural feast', was still in use at the 1780s to describe outdoor meals. The word 'picnic' (also French - 'pique-nique') was introduced around that date but wasn't widely used until a century or so later.

2. Kettle = fishing net

The above explanation is entirely plausible and is what most people believe as the source of the phrase 'a pretty kettle of fish'.

However, there is another word of very long-standing which may be the source of the phrase, and that is 'kiddle'.

Kiddles are barriers or weirs in rivers designed to catch fish. Kiddle nets are part of that apparatus.

Kiddles have been in use with that name since at least the 13th century and are referred to in the Magna Carta, 1215:

Omnes kydelli de cetero deponantur penitus de Thamisia, et de Medewaye, et per totam Angliam, nisi per costeram maris

Which translates as:

All weirs then removed altogether from Thames and Medway, and throughout England, except along the sea

In 1670, Thomas Blount published his Law-dictionary, which includes this:

Kiddle, kidel, or kedel,... Some Fishermen corruptly call them Kettles.

So, a 'kettle of fish' could mean 'a net of fish'.

The first use in print of 'kettle of fish' that I know of is in Henry Fielding's novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, 1742:

'Here's a pretty Kettle of Fish,' cries Mrs. Tow-wouse

Should there be any doubt about the meaning of the expression in Fielding's uses of it, there's an unambiguous explanation of the phrase in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811:

"When a person has perplexed his affairs in general, or any particular business, he is said to have made a fine kettle of fish of it."

Which is correct, fish kettle or fish net?

Both 'kettle' meaning fish kettle and 'kettle' meaning fish net were in use before the expression came into existence. So, whoever coined the phrase could have had either in mind.

However, everyone is, and was, familiar with the word kettle. Kiddle is, and was, an uncommon word. Most people in the 18th century, when referring to a kettle, would have meant saucepan rather than net.

Which might sensibly have the meaning 'muddle or mess'?

That would seem to be the fishing net. Fish writhe and leap in nets Poached salmon just lie there and don't seem to be an obviously evocative of mess and muddle.

If only we could find a pre-1742 example of 'a pretty kiddle of fish', we could be sure. Without that. who knows?

See also, the meaning and origin of 'a different kettle of fish'.