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.
Search World Wide Words
Support this website!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.