Wednesday, June 27, 2012

cold fish

Oftentimes when I'm doing some of my fiction writing different idioms pop up from somewhere in the nether regions of my brain, and naturally I start wondering where they originated, like "cold fish", for example. That one just came up.  Luckily, the Internet provides instant gratification (assuming the reference source is accurate)...

I found information at about it, which also listed its references (other dictionaries - maybe an infinite regression of them?).  Apparently it was William Shakespeare who coined the term, in The Winter's Tale, spoken by Autolycus, the peddler, Act IV, Scene IV, who's peddling ballads:

"Here's another ballad, of a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true."

Maybe the guy who loved her was fishy or looked like a fish, and that's why she rejected him (I'm assuming it's a guy that got rejected since the ballad is about the "hard hearts of maids").

According to, though, the term only caught on in the 1900s.  I wonder what that story was.  The only reference I could find was in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, which lists the term as in popular use in the 1930s.

On a related note, a website I really like to use to read up on idioms and phrases is The Phrase Finder.  "Cold fish" wasn't in their database, though.

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