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Ye gods and little fishes!

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Feb. 2002

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 9 February 2002.