Q From Harald Beck: Someone who is not on the Internet has asked about the origin of the interjection Ye gods and little fishes!. Can you help with its origin?
A I can help a bit, but the mists of word history obscure its early story. It’s an elaboration of the older ye gods!, an exclamation that dates back at least to the seventeenth century in Britain, a way of calling on higher powers in a mock-heroic way without actually bringing the wrath of the Church down on you for blasphemy.
However, ye gods and little fishes is characteristically American, an example of the embellishment and ornamentation that was common in the inflated language of the nineteenth century. I’ve found several examples from the 1850s, which suggest that by then it was well known. A good one appears in Early Indiana Trials and Sketches by Oliver Hampton Smith, of 1858: “Mr. Tyler’s friends in their great devotion to their great chief, have compared him to Napoleon. ‘Ye gods and little fishes!’ John Tyler and Napoleon Bonaparte!”.
But why the little fishes? Sorry, I’ve no idea, except there may be a disguised Biblical reference in there somewhere, perhaps to the story of the feeding of the five thousand in St Matthew’s Gospel. My suspicion is that it was a catchphrase from a play or popular song that is now lost to us.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
Phizzog; Horse creature; Get one’s goat; Mammock; Mx; Stepney; Vape; No names, no pack drill; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!