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Q From Katya Epstein: In the movie The Producers, Max Bialystock says to Leo Bloom, “Am I correct in my assumption, you fish-faced enemy of the people?” Does fish-faced have a specific meaning, or did Brooks write this because Gene Wilder looks kind of like a fish?

A You may say that of Wilder. I’m staying quiet.

It’s been a long time, I suspect, since this playground taunt, meaning that the person so described is ugly or stupid-looking, has suggested that a person’s face literally looks like that of a fish. We may guess it started out describing a person either with bulging eyes or a receding chin that pushed the mouth forward.

I can remember it from my school days, a lot longer ago than I care to think about. But I also associate it with P G Wodehouse and was delighted to find that the Oxford English Dictionary concurs, since its only example of the insult is from his Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published in 1963: “He’s no worse than that fishfaced blighter.”

However, it’s much older than that. Raymond Chandler wrote in a short story in 1938 about “fish-faced blondes trying to shake a hangover out of their teeth.” George Orwell’s novel of 1936, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, has “Flaxman was propping up the bar with two fish-faced pals who looked like insurance-touts of the better type.” The American author and actor Emery Pottle, better known in the movies from 1921 onwards as Gilbert Emery, wrote in a story about the theatre in 1910:

It made me sore to see the fish-faced chump who had to make love to her in the piece. One night I punched the fish-faced boy’s eye because he got too gay with her. And there was a row and he got me fired.

Racine Daily Journal, 30 Dec. 1910. Making love at this date meant either flirting or courting and to be gay was to be light-hearted, carefree or flirtatious.

It’s easy to take the expression back even further. George Augustus Sala, a British journalist with a name to remember, wrote a piece in the Temple Bar magazine in 1875 about a painting: “It was a half length of a fish-faced gentleman, in oil”. It makes him sound like a sardine.

All these must bow before Four Plays in One, conventionally ascribed to Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher around 1610, though scholars now doubt the former was involved. In a scene set before the walls of Athens, the authors have the philosopher Socrates say to two captains who were discussing executing him, “Away, ye fish-faced rascals!”

It’s far distant in time and context from those insults in the playgrounds of my youth, but not so far in spirit.

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Page created 18 Oct 2014