Fishermen at Visakhapatnam beach
Fishermen at Visakhapatnam beach| Commons
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The ‘fish market’ phrase can be traced back to a 17th century market in London, notorious for loud and crude language used in its stalls.

New Delhi: Is comparing a situation to a fish market unparliamentary? A national association of fishermen certainly thinks so.

So much so that it has taken strong exception to its usage by Supreme Court judge, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, during a court proceeding this week and demanded he take it back.

Pandemonium broke out in the courtroom during a hearing of a case on 5 February. The proceedings soon became disorderly, as tempers flared and the petitioners started making accusatory statements against each other. A furious Chandrachud had to repeatedly assert his authority to keep the quarrying lawyers in check. At some point, he reportedly said that the verbal exchanges were “worse than a fish market”.

Now, the National Fisherfolk Forum (NFF) has taken offence to this remark. “The utterance of the honourable justice is tantamount to disrespecting the total fisher communities and so highly condemnable,” NFF chairperson M. Ilango said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The letter also asks the justice to “take back the unparliamentary words in the very same forum where it was uttered”.

A fishy phrase

The origin of the phrase ‘fish market’ can be traced back to the middle of 17th century Britain. ‘Billingsgate’ was a fish market in London, notorious for loud and crude language that resounded through its stalls. In fact, the fishmongers of Billingsgate were so famous for their ability to swear, that their feats of vulgar English have been recorded by British chroniclers in the past. ‘Billingsgate’ thus became a colloquial by-word for crudeness.

For some reason, fish seems to attach itself to the worst kind of characteristics. It is not only Billingsgate that finds infamy in etymology, but the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘fishwife’ as “a coarse-mannered woman who is prone to shouting”.

The term first pops up in the dictionary in 1523, and by 1622 it was already being used in translations in England as an insult. Across the sea in the Netherlands, Dutch fishwives or visverkoopsters become synonymous with indecency because women had to take on the roles of their seafaring husbands while they were away. Fishwives would go door to door calling out to customers.

And if Lady Dorito chips are any indication, we still don’t like a mobile, loud, entrepreneurial lady close to 400 years later.

Similarly, ‘fishmonger’ has derogatory connotations, being used as far back as 1603 as an insult in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to refer to Polonius as a plebeian who traded in the flesh, or as we commonly call it, a pimp.

‘Fishy’, as a term representing something that was suspicious, or questionable in character was first recorded in dictionaries in 1840 — perhaps from the notion of ‘slipperiness’, or of giving off a bad odour.

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2 Comments Share Your Views


  1. If someone is called ‘lion-hearted’,will that person feel proud or roar in anger? At this rate,no phrase or expression can be used figuratively. If said that one chickened out, is it a slur on the chicken?

  2. We need thicker skins, more hardy than fish provide. A common phrase, metaphorically used, should not shake the scales of justice (pun intended).


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