Neither fish nor fowl

The other day I used the phrase “neither fish nor fowl”, then, wondering where it came from, looked it up. Now it seems like I’m coming across the phrase all the time.  Today there was a variation of the phrase in The Economist‘s “Bedside Table”:

For a more traditional guide, try H.W. Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage”…. older editions are fun; they show what raised the hackles a hundred years ago. For example Fowler condemned as “clichés” many phrases I’d never heard: “a curate’s egg”, “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring”, and so on. I like to imagine a world in which “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring” was irritatingly common.

The phrase “neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring” was a 16th century classification of society according to diet of church members.  Clergy ate fish, lay people ate fowl (or meat–“flesh”), and paupers ate red herring. A tantalizing snippet also tells us, “A herring cured in saltpeter turns red”.

Even more curious is the entry a few pages down for flibbertygibbet”.  This is familiar from The Sound of Music:

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!

But we find out from wikipedia that Flibbertigebbet was the name of one of five fiends from Shakespeare’s King Lear that Edgar (as the beggar, Tom o’ Bedlam) claimed was possessing him.

Shakespeare’s five fiends were Obidicut (lust), Hobididence (prince of dumbness), Mahu (of stealing),  Modo (of murder), Flibbertigibbet (of mopping and mowing, who since possesses chambermaids and waiting-women). [source-with notes about Hoberdicut, Stiberdigetbit, and the context of “moping and mowing” as grimacing and making faces ]

Shakespeare got the name from Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), where one reads of 40 fiends, which Jesuits cast out and among which was Fliberdigibbet, described as one of “foure deuils of the round, or Morrice, whom Sara in her fits, tuned together, in measure and sweet cadence.” [text]

Hmm, Morris dancing?

Here’s the entry for neither fish nor fowl in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Scroll down a few pages for Flibbertigibbet.

Addendum: Canehan, in a comment below, has identified the origin of the phrase “a curate’s egg” as a cartoon from Punch. According to wikipedia,

The phrase derives from a cartoon in the humorous British magazine Punch on 9 November 1895. Drawn by George du Maurier and entitled “True Humility”, it pictured a timid-looking curate taking breakfast in his bishop’s house.

The bishop says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.” The curate replies, “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

The expression refers to an objective understanding of the depicted scenario: since an egg that is even partly “bad” is effectively inedible, the supposedly “excellent” parts do not redeem it. The humour is derived from the fact that, given the social situation, the timid curate feels that he dare not complain about the quality of an inedible egg that would ordinarily be immediately rejected.

Posted in Books. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Neither fish nor fowl”

  1. Canehan Says:

    Sorry that first sentence got messed up, so for clarity I’ll repeat the whole thing and ask you to deleat the first post.:

    Nij: I presume you know about the curate’s egg, but just in case:
    It’s from a Punch cartoon where a nervous young curate is dining with the Bishop. There is clearly a noxious smell.
    The text is:

    Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

    The cartoon is called :”True Humility” by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 1895

    The cartoon itself is here:

    (I tried to copy and paste it, but can’t find a way to paste it into the Comment box).

  2. Nijma Says:

    Thanks, Canehan, great cartoon.

    I’ve never found a way to add an image to a comment (although adding a video is easy enough). I’ve added the Punch cartoon to the end of the post.

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