Q From Lee-Ann Nelson: I am baffled by an expression from P G Wodehouse. Bertie puts on his soup and fish. Can you explain this?
A I can. The soup and fish is a man’s evening dress, dinner suit, or dress suit, though I should really instead refer to it as a tuxedo, since — despite Bertie Wooster’s mainly London milieu — the phrase seems to be natively American.
Until I went delving in old US newspapers, I thought that Wodehouse had invented it. Indeed, the OED gives him the credit for its first use, in Piccadilly Jim in 1918: “He took me to supper at some swell joint where they all had the soup-and-fish on but me. I felt like a dirty deuce in a clean deck.” But there are earlier examples, such as this from The Atlanta Constitution of November 1914, in a report about local kids being given a slap-up meal by the Rotary Club: “There’s going to be no ‘fess up’ business; no ‘soup and fish’ outfits. It’ll be just a good dinner.”
But why soup and fish? Well, one dons these duds for a special occasion such as a formal meal. This is likely to be a heavyweight event, with many courses, starting with soup and followed by fish before one gets to the main event of the meat course. So the soup-and-fish is what one wears to consume the soup and fish.
Incidentally, one of the more delightful aspects of hunting down this kind of language is that sometimes you get more than you were expecting. The Grand Rapids Tribune in February 1915 included this: “After donning the complete Soup and Fish known in swozzey circles as Thirteen and the Odd, he didn’t look as much like a waiter as one might have supposed.” Thirteen and the Odd? There are other examples to be found, though only a few. Jonathon Green notes in the Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that it is long-obsolete slang for a tail-coat, as worn with the full fig of white tie and tails, but says that its origin is unknown. Well, did you ever?