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The meaning and origin of the expression: A pretty kettle of fish

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A pretty kettle of fish

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A pretty kettle of fish'?

The expression 'a pretty kettle of fish' or 'a fine/nice kettle of fish' means 'a muddle or awkward state of affairs'. It's the kind of situation that Oliver Hardy was referring to when he told Stan Laurel "here's another nice mess you've got me into".

The phrase 'a different kettle of fish' has a separate meaning, which is, 'an alternative; a different thing altogether'.

A pretty kettle of fishThe two phrases are often confused but have different origins and different meanings. Which is another way of saying that they are different phrases.

As this graph of the use of the two phrases in print shows, the 'pretty' variant was overtaken by 'different' around 1950.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A pretty kettle of fish'?

Being English, I have a close association with kettles; essential equipment for a custom in which the English can still claim world dominance, the making of 'a nice cup of tea'.

Here's where we get into hot water, so to speak - the tea-kettles that we now picture when we think of a kettle have nothing to do with this phrase.

There are two opposing strands of thought as to what the kettle in 'a pretty kettle of fish' is. Let's look at them both.

1. Kettle = fish kettle

The meaning and origin of 'A pretty kettle of fish'.
Saucepans like this were probably the
origin of the phrase 'a pretty kettle of
fish'.

Fish kettles are the long saucepans that have been used since the 17th century to poach fish, especially large fish like whole salmon.

In 1785 Thomas Newte published A Tour in England and Scotland. In this he referred to fish kettles:

"It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre [a picnic], 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."

So, if we take Newte's word for it, the kettle in the expression 'a kettle of fish' is the cooking implement a fish kettle.

Incidentally, and just to go off at a tangent for a moment, the two meanings of the verb 'poach', which are 'steal game' and 'cook by simmering in water', both derive from the French 'pocher', which means 'put in a bag'. So, if a ne'er-do-well were to illegally take a salmon from a river and boil it for his tea, he would be poaching in both senses.

The first use in print of 'pretty kettle of fish' that I know of is in Henry Fielding's novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, 1742:

'Here's a pretty Kettle of Fish,' cries Mrs. Tow-wouse

2. Kettle = fishing net

The above explanation is entirely plausible and is what most people believe as the source of the phrase 'a pretty kettle of fish'.

However, there is another word of very long-standing which may be the source of the phrase, and that is 'kiddle'.

Kiddles are barriers or weirs in rivers designed to catch fish. Kiddle nets are part of that apparatus.

Kiddles have been in use with that name since at least the 13th century and are referred to in the Magna Carta, 1215:

Omnes kydelli de cetero deponantur penitus de Thamisia, et de Medewaye, et per totam Angliam, nisi per costeram maris.

Which translates as:

All weirs then removed altogether from Thames and Medway, and throughout England, except along the sea.

In 1670, Thomas Blount published his Law-dictionary, which includes this:

Kiddle, kidel, or kedel,... Some Fishermen corruptly call them Kettles.

A pretty kettle of fish
Ebenezer Brewer believed that
'a kettle of fish' originated as
'a kiddle of fish'.

So, a 'kettle of fish' could mean 'a net of fish'.

The English cleric Ebenezer Cobham Brewer certainly believed that kiddles were the origin of 'a pretty kettle of fish' and stated as much in his 1877 glossary Errors of Speech and of Spelling:

Kiddle, a basket for catching fish. 'A pretty kiddle of fish' corrupted into 'A pretty kettle of fish'.

However, stating something to be true doesn't make it true and Brewer offers no supporting evidence.

So, which is correct, fish kettle or fish net?

Both 'kettle' meaning fish kettle and 'kettle' meaning fishing net were in use before the expression came into existence. So, whoever coined the phrase could have had either in mind. Either could connect to imagery of muddle - either a fish stew or fish writhing in a net.

However, everyone is, and was, familiar with the word kettle. Kiddle is, and was, an uncommon word. Most people in the 18th century, when referring to a kettle, would have meant saucepan rather than net. We can't be sure but, for my money, the 'saucepan' (rather appropriately) is probably the source.

See also, the meaning and origin of 'a different kettle of fish'.