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Stitched up like a kipper

Q From Sophie Yauner: Do you have any ideas on where the phrase stitched up like a kipper (and stitch up, which I presume is an abbreviation), comes from? Despite searching the internet I have not found a convincing answer.

A I have to confess to twitching whenever anybody mentions kippers. A few years ago, I did a radio piece for an American radio programme on another kipper-related expression. After my detailed exposition, there was a silence and then the presenter said, “That’s all very interesting ... but, what’s a kipper?”

So I must begin by explaining that kippers, traditionally part of the British breakfast, are herrings that have been split, gutted, lightly salted and cured by cold smoking. Anybody describing himself or somebody else as kippered is suggesting that he’s figuratively “dead, gutted, skinned and cooked”, in other words thoroughly exploited or taken advantage of.

Eric Partridge suggested that the plain verb, kipper, had been used from the 1920s in the sense of having one’s chances ruined. But a longer version done up like a kipper starts to appear in the record in 1981, in a script of the BBC television comedy show Only Fools and Horses.

This is a recent example:

And being what is known as “an innocent abroad”, he had signed a number of rapidly drawn-up contracts and been “done up like a kipper”, which is to say, “taken to the cleaners”, which is to say, swindled.

Nostradamus Ate My Hamster, by Robert Rankin, 1996.

However, John Bagnall, one of the group of volunteers who sanity-check the draft of this newsletter each week, recalls that both this version and yours were around earlier in the spoken language:

I was chief press officer for EMI Records in the mid 1970s and recall done up like a kipper and stitched up like a kipper being in popular music industry usage around that time. Its chief proponent within EMI was Eric Hall, then EMI’s chief radio and TV “plugger” (promotions man). The specific sense in which I often heard or used them was that of being left with no room for manoeuvre or scope for negotiation (“I thought the costs would be shared but their lawyer had found a clause in the contract that said we had to pay for everything; I tried to negotiate but he’d got me stitched up like a kipper”).

The done up version almost certainly came first but was soon combined with the slightly older stitched up, criminal slang for having been falsely incriminated by the police through methods such as planting evidence or faking confessions. The result, stitched up like a kipper, is wonderful nonsense, as it’s one fate the hapless herring can hardly expect to suffer.

Well, it now transpires that poor [Andrew] Mitchell may have been stitched up like a kipper by a copper, because part of the email evidence against him was fabricated by an officer pretending to be an ordinary civilian who had witnessed the altercation.

The Sun, 20 Dec. 2012.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Apr. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 April 2014.