Wednesday, February 11, 2009

‘A pretty kettle of fish’

Collective nouns are one of my favourite word things, and lists of them inhabit the Internet, and pop up from time to time. The words always have the air of antiquity about them, and seemed a good source for food stories, so I set about a-hunting them.

What was surprising was how few (at a fairly superficial hunting level, I admit) stood up to the test of time. Naturally, I stuck to the more eatable animals. My personal favourite of ‘a pitying of turtledoves”, is not anywhere to be found in the OED, neither are ‘a husk of hares’ or ‘a paddling of ducks.’ A few are genuinely old – ‘a sounder of swine’ is found at least by 1410, and ‘a trip of goats’ by 1310.

How about ‘a kettle of fish’? There is no mention of it as a collective noun in the OED, but it sounds like a fine thing to be offered for dinner, so why does it stand as a metaphor for a troublesome mess or difficult situation? ‘Kettle’ is a very old word indeed, a word of Teutonic origin, apparently, and recorded by the year 700, and ‘Fish’ is probably of a similar vintage. The phrase ‘a kettle of fish’, is defined in the OED as ‘On the Tweed [in Scotland], etc. A kettle of fish cooked al fresco, at a boating excursion or picnic; hence, applied to the picnic itself. Also simply kettle.’ A nice picnic hardly seems to qualify as a great troublesome situation to get oneself into, does it?

The clue, however, may be in one of the supporting quotes, from 1791:

‘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.’

A live salmon, faced with the prospect of being thrown alive into boiling water, would indeed be in a situtation that could be described as ‘a pretty kettle of fish.’ Is that the explanation?

Here is a kinder way of cooking your fish in your fish-kettle.

Whole Cod.
Put a large quantity of water into your fish-kettle, which must be of a proper size for the cod, with a quarter of a pint of vinegar, a handful of salt, and half a stick of horse-radish. Let these boil together for some time, and then put in the fish. When it is done enough (which will be known by feeling the fins, and the look of the fish) lay it to drain, put it in a hot fishplate, and then in a warm dish, with the liver cut in half, and laid on each side. Serve it up with shrimp or oyster-sauce, and garnish with scraped horse-radish.
Modern Domestic Cookery, and Useful Receipt Book, by William Augustus Henderson 1828.

Quotation for the Day …

I think fish is nice, but then I think that fish is wet, so who am I to judge?
Douglas Adams.


srhcb said...

Perhaps this definition explains the "fine" kettle of fish?

Fine: (7)—used as an intensive - the leader, in a fine frenzy, beheaded one of his wives — Brian Crozier— fine·ness \ˈfīn-nəs\ noun - Merriam-Webster Online

Judith Klinger said...

In New York, it's a fine kettle of fish, not a pretty kettle.
But the idea of throwing a whole live salmon into a boiling kettle...sounds so .... messy. All that thrashing.

Anonymous said...

‘a paddling of ducks'

The Old Foodie said...

A fine kettle of fish, I am told is the expression in some places.
I do love a paddling of ducks.