a fine kettle of fish

a fine kettle of fish

This phrase is used to describe a troublesome situation or a muddle. “I’ve burned the roast. We don’t have anything to serve our guests as a main dish. This is a fine kettle of fish.”

“A kettle of fish” refers to the long, oval, metal saucepans that have been used for centuries to poach whole salmon and are otherwise known as fish-kettles. A fish kettle has a handle on each side and a lid and, often, a removable rack inside. The rack allows a whole fish to be cooked in heated or boiling water or in steam and then easily lifted out of the kettle.

There seems to be no logical reason why an ordinary piece of kitchen equipment was singled out to mean “muddle or mess.” Perhaps it’s an allusion to the muddle of bones, head and skin left in fish-kettles after the fish has been eaten. 

“Kettle of fish” is listed by several reference works as dating from 1745, although the earliest actual citation of the term in print to be found is in Thomas Newte’s A Tour in England and Scotland in 1785: “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 are pitched near the banks of the river, a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles.”

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

The earliest uses of the phrase come from the English novelist Henry Fielding. In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, 1742, and, in The History of Tom Jones, 1749:

“Fine doings at my house! A rare kettle of fish I have discovered at last.”

The phrase is explained 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.”

“A different kettle of fish” is also used in some countries and means “a different thing altogether.” The North American term “a whole new ball game” means the same thing. For example, we might invite a friend to stay for a few days but remark that a stay of a few months would be a different kettle of fish.

The expression dates from the late 1800s and was found most commonly in Scotland and the north of England. An early citation comes from a report of a parliamentary debate on the Irish question, in the Carlisle Patriot newspaper, June 1889: “To enable them to manage their own local affairs will not satisfy Irishmen. What they want is a very different kettle of fish.”

From my particular end of Canada, I can say that writing a novel is one thing. Getting it published is a different kettle of fish. Or, as some wit remarked, wryly, publishing a book is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.

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  One thought on “a fine kettle of fish

  1. Leanne Taylor
    October 6, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    Love this blog!
    Thank you!


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