The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Amy Reeves
For the Sentinel 

Where'd that come from? Fine Kettle of Fish


This expression means an awkward or messy state of affairs and originates from old English. Kettles are the essential piece of kitchen equipment for customs in which only the English can claim world dominance; a kettle of tea, a kettle of stew , or a kettle of fish. The expression ‘a kettle of fish’ refers to the long saucepans that have been used for centuries to poach (steam or boil) whole salmon and are referred to as fish-kettles. The earliest actual use of the term in print that I can find is: A Tour in England and Scotland in 1785, by William Thomson (in later editions of this work, the author is given as Thomas Newte, i.e. William Thomson. With a half-title.) “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.” Another definition of the phrase comes from 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.” As to why a kettle was singled out as the source of a phrase referring to making a mess of things is unclear, however, it may stem from the mess that is left in fish-kettles after the fish has been eaten. I love to fish. What pushed me head over heels, hook, line, and sinker, in love with my husband was he had fishing poles in the gun rack of his Chevy truck instead of a gun. We die-hard fishers will brave any weather to plop our lines in the water for the chance at bragging rights. Snow , rain, blistering hot, even ‘midnight fishing,’ which is a lot of fun. You just aim for the water and let it go. I have caught some very interesting catches that way…a branch, a rock, my husband’s favorite Chevy hat. There was one time I took a half-inch nut, tied it to my line and threw it in the water just so I could watch the end of my pole. When Fish and Wildlife asked for my license I told him I had none and I was not fishing. He looked at me then my pole, then back at me. He looked at me like I was a few worms short of a dozen. I reeled my line in and showed him the half-inch nut, then I told him the sad tale as to why I could not get my fishing license. He shook his head

at the situation and said that was the most creative way to have a line in the water without being in trouble for no license. There is just something healing to the soul to watch the end of your pole with your line in the water . Some serious equipment purchases are needed for this hobby/addiction: poles, hooks, lures, worms, line, nets, first-aid-kit, and maybe a boat. We were lucky one year and got a salmon net. We go fishing a lot and have never used that net in the water . It has come in really handy for catching chickens though. Sometimes you have to get a little creative when you, your husband, and children are all chasing chickens around the coup, and it looks like something from the late Barnum and Bailey Circus minus the clown outfits and tigers. We had to chase six hens in almost three feet of snow this last weekend, and I will tell you, it was another ‘America’s Funnies Home Video’ moments. Three grown adults, a salmon net, and six hens—all I can tell you is the hens almost won due to the hysterical outburst of laughter as we dove for a chicken into a snow bank and came up empty handed. We prevailed and captured those fowl creatures. The entire situation can be summed up as ‘a fine kettle of fish!’


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