Something Fishy Going On: An Analysis of the Role of Fish in American FolkspeechTok Thompson
Did anyone ever tell you about the one that got away? If so, that "one" was likely either the most significant love of their life, or a fish. And of course, if something is a "nice catch," the same logic applies. If your lover leaves you, you can be assured that "there are more fish in the sea." But if something (a story, a politician, or a business deal) is "fishy" we all know what is meant—and certainly a "fish story" is not to be believed. But fish are also funny; fish jokes abound in forms both clean and dirty. Fish are a staple of American discourse in folklore and folk speech, appearing in myriad forms but with some important linking commonalities. In this paper, I will attempt to demonstrate that fish are "complex entities" (as per Vaz da Silva) which act as "semantic classifiers" (as per Meletinsky) within our cultural worldview.  I will argue further that folk speech and jokes regarding fish and fishing in modern America is so highly gendered as to allow for a whole tabooistic discourse, where issues of gender can be played out by proxy.
Fish are, of course, also a real thing. They are a thing of the world, as well as a nearly ubiquitous feature of human cultures throughout the globe. Some cultures rely almost entirely on fish for income and/or subsistence. While they playa lesser role in other cultures, fish are not too far behind other universal items of human existence, like family, the moon, and the seasons. Not surprisingly, different cultures have given wildly different meanings and connotations to the symbolism of fish.
For example, among the Mehinaku, in the Amazon, fishing is seen as a male activity, whereas the fish trap itself is depicted as a feminine symbol. You drive the fish into the trap, in a strongly sexualized set of symbols linking sexuality and food. In Mehinaku society, both are construed in terms of "appetites" to be controlled (Gregor). Further north, Mayan symbolism linked fish with the moon (due to the moon's influence on the tides) (see Mibrath).
The fish plays a large role in Christian symbolism. The fish is often employed as a sign ofJesus, who according to Christian tradition was a fisherman for men's souls. But there are many more symbolic uses and metaphorical references beyond the Christian realm as well. Indeed much of the symbolism appears in the wider realms within Semitic and Near Eastern folklore (for Pan-Semitic background, also see Seftelowitz. For a more modern read, see Patai).
In Ireland, we have fish associated with vigorous health, and also with supernatural insight, as in Fionn Mac Cumhail's famous 'salmon of knowledge'. In Italy a fish has been reported as a term for a simpleton or fool (Janseesns 111). Yet in the Neapolitan dialect the word pesce is the same as the word for phallos itself, and due to this Angelo de Gubernatis in his Zoological Mythology of 1872 described the fish as an unequivocally phallic symbol.
This symbol was utilized in delivering connotations in a variety of ways in folklore, perhaps especially in the ritual of April Fools, a day that was better known throughout much of Europe as April Fish (poison d'Avril) (see Dundes). This, in turn, seems to stem from the turn from the Julian to Gregorian calendars by Charles IX of France in 1564, when the New Year no longer started directly after Easter on April 1, but instead on January 1 (Santino). Implied in this formulation is the idea that the fish was an old New Year's gift, doubtless one symbolizing fertility and fecundity. There is also the idea of duping a victim, the fool, or fish.
We could go on, but I hope these few examples demonstrate the multifaceted ways in which this cultural category has been put to symbolic use. Fish can be funny, spiritual, or sexual. This is why this article focuses rather narrowly on current American folk speech and jokes to understand the culturally specific ways in which this symbol is used.
In this study, I am researching something that is a part of my own life. I fished commercially in small (30'-40') boats with my family in Alaska from the age of eleven on, and spent much of my spare time sports-fishing in the streams and lakes near my home. These are, I realized early on, two distinct worlds—that of commercial fishing and that of sports fishing. Also early on, I became aware of the gender distinctions. "Snips of snails, and puppydog tails, that's what little boys are made of," we heard cooed to us from an early age, all the while being assured that girls were made of "sugar and spice and everything nice," and, from the sound of it, kept busy in the kitchen with all the sugar and spices. Meanwhile, all the men in my family went on to become commercial fishermen (a common occupation in the small community), while even then (1970s onwards) it was rare to see women out on the boats. It was considered bad luck, and there were several captains who would refuse to take a woman out because of this—or at times even refuse to have a woman set foot on the boat. Plus, given that the sanitary conditions on the boats could be on the primitive side-surely the ban on women was only appropriate?
Charles Mienz wrote an article on the use of obscenities among commercial fishermen in southeastern Alaska—delightfully entitled "Obscenities and Fishermen: the (Re)production of Gender in the Process of Production," and he noted the shift in gender in the workforce, with women starting to move into commercial fishing realm. Mienz argues, "It is within this context that male fishers' use of obscenities comes to operate as a gender exclusive mode of communication that simultaneously affirms male self-images and excludes women from full participation in the male fishers' world" (Mienz 13). The heavy use of obscenities, with many bordering on the misogynistic, was seen as an attempt at maintaining the fishing world as an essentially masculine one. "The use of obscenity is a particularly important mechanism in creating and maintaining male images of masculinity, especially given changing demographic and technological factors in the fishery that threaten male occupational dominance."
To this use of obscenities, other cultural practices could be added, including the tradition of giving boats women's names, setting up the sort of strangely gendered sentences one might commonly hear in fishing communities: "the men are all out on the Barbara J," for example, almost sounding like some sort of polyandrous group marriage. Boats are often referred to with the use of the feminine pronoun as well. ''I'm working on her," one might say, or "she's a good boat." (One might also use the standard neuter, but never a masculine pronoun). The gendered relations built into such talk are quite clear: the masculine men use and take care of, a female boat.
There are other examples of gendered folk speech as well. An experienced person of the sea is an "old salt," or a "salty dog." There are numerous jokes relying on metaphorical references to sex by delivering a punchline on the pun, "salty seamen." Even "salty talk" refers to this, perhaps obliquely by the supposed coarseness and crudity of the speech of the seamen. And note the clear gender lines: "seawomen" is not even a standard English word. Similarly, although "fishermen" rolls off the native English speaker's tongue, "fisherwomen" doesn't really exist as a word, and "fishers" is strange and new.
Sports Fishing/Recreational Fishing
Such folk speech is also present in the realm of recreational fishing. Although commercial fishing is a way of life for many people, even more people partake of recreational fishing in some form or another in American society. This is a topic that has seen several excellent papers in folklore conferences and journals in the past, from "noodling" to ice fishing. "Noodling" (also known as grabbing, graveling, hogging, dogging, tickling, or stumping) is the art of catching catfish by hand, sticking one's hand into their lair and hoping they will bite onto the hand. If they do, the noodler rams his hand down the throat of the catfish, and the fight ensues. It involves a lot of pushing of one's body parts into dark, slimy holes, and is almost exclusively practiced by men. (I am aware, though, that one can order a "girls gone grabbin" DVD from the catfishgrabblers dot com: the exception proves the rule). Many noodlers have said they learned the techniques from fathers or older male relatives, and many said they intended to teach their sons as well (for more on noodling, see Salazar, Samsell, Bilger).
In investigations in ice fishing (e.g., Murphy), this same role of the fishing trip as a male-bonding ritual was emphasized, and I believe this is true for much recreational sport fishing throughout the United States. Male fishing trips play important roles in American culture, and are often thought of as the ideal "father-son" activity Fishing trips are also thought of as a way to be "away with the guys." For younger males this can be an important avenue to be let in on "secret" male knowledge, and perhaps engage in normally taboo activities such as swearing, or underage drinking. Secret knowledge can be imparted and learned, from how to tie a fly to favorite fishing spots. In the article "Elitism, Keeping Secrets, and Fly Fishing" in Western Folklore, Dennis Cutchins explores the role of secrets amongst fly fishermen in Utah. He states, " ... interestingly, each of these men fished when they were children, most with their fathers or grandfathers, and they all mentioned the bonding aspects of fishing with these adults" (Cutchins).
This secret knowledge can also be seen as an important way to keep ranks closed, not so different from the men's societies in many cultures, with their own secret knowledge and rituals. It is all very "manly" behavior, leaving the settled domesticity of women for rugged adventure with your male group in search of food for the family, the last realm of the respectable hunter and gatherer. Further, Cutchins notes, "Apparently, part of the reason fishing is special to many fishermen is that it represents one of the few places where they feel comfortable being with other men. Although I have not explored this area in the interviews, it is a reality that demands further study." As in the commercial fishing example, the attempt to maintain gender lines in sports fishing is strong, and a plethora of common jokes seems developed around this theme.
For instance, here's a popular old standard recast in a "blonde joke" format, still making the rounds on several internet joke sites:A blonde wanted to go ice-fishing. She'd seen many books on the subject, and finally, after getting all the necessary "tools" together, she made for the nearest frozen lake. After positioning her comfy foot-stool, she started to make a circular cut in the ice. Suddenly-from the sky-a voice boomed, "THERE ARE NO FISH THERE!" Startled, the Blonde moved further down the ice, poured a Thermos of cappuccino, began to cut yet another hole. Again, from the heavens, the voice bellowed, "THERE ARE NO FISH THERE!" The Blonde, now quite worried, moved way down to the opposite end of the ice, sat up her stool, and tried again to cut her hole. The voice came once more: "THERE ARE NO FISH THERE!" She stopped, looked skyward, and said, "Who are you-God?" The voice replied, "NO, I OWN THE ICE-RINK!"
The message, in this joke as well as others, is clear: women can't fish.
These gender lines are replayed in a number of jokes. Here is a perennial favorite:
But there are other gendered messages beyond just enforcing gender lines in fishing groups that seem to come out of the use of fish in American folk speech and humor. Another popular joke is as follows:Kent and three of his buddies have gone fishing every Saturday for nearly forty years. One Saturday, the guys are fishing along a highway when a funeral processional drives by. Well, Kent lays down his pole, stands up in the boat, takes off his lucky hat and places it over his heart. This processional is huge and takes nearly five minutes to pass. Once it passes, Kent sits down, puts his hat on and cast out without saying a word. Needless to say, his buddies are floored by his actions. One of them finally speaks up and says, "That sure was a respectful thing you did there when they went by." Kent replied, "It seems the least I could do seeing as how I've been married to the woman for over forty years!"
This popular joke seems to play upon the idea that not only is fishing; a male activity, but that such activities take precedence over one's marital, romantic, or familial obligations. Indeed, it would seem to imply that fishing is almost a substitute for such relations, a point brought out explicitly in several jokes.
In another version of the above, two additional reasons are noteworthy:
Another joke on the internet explained: "Fishing is like sex [ ... ] when it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's still pretty good."
There are multitudes of variations on the "Fishing is like sex [ .. ]" formula. Some answers of which are
Other related slogans include "Fish naked: show off your pole." Clearly in these examples, a fisherperson is expected to be male, and in this list it is also clear that fishing is seen as a substitute for sex (or, indeed, even as an improvement over sexual relations!)
The preference of being with male companions and engaging in fishing is set against the symbolism of fishing as replacements for sexual and romantic interests with women. This, combined with enforcement of gendered lines in fishing groups, can occasionally give rise to jokes which border on the misogynistic. Here is a text I collected making the rounds in my home state in Alaska. I should perhaps mention that it was told by men, to men—the time that I first heard it, elaborate precautions were undertaken to ensure that the women present at the gathering didn't overhear it.
This popular joke holds in question the husband's activities during the weekend away as either sexual, or fishing. Also implied is the idea that the husband who would cheat on a marriage would presumably "cheat" at being a fishermen, and purchase a fish. Fishing trips and adulterous activities are the stuff of many jokes in American culture. The possibility of something being "fishy" in this case could mean either option, underlining the linked notions of fish and sexuality in folk speech.
In the Berkeley Folklore Archives there is a whole folder (AngloAmerican Jokes V P5 C3 s4) on a joke which seems to be a stand-in for male castration anxiety and vagina dentata. A brief synopsis of the thirteen items might run as follows.
Like jokes, folk speech is redolent with gendered connotations of fish and fishing in American culture. Unlike the Neapolitan example, the American model does not seem to have much wordplay on the primary word itself, but it does seem to have a great wealth of connotations on words secondarily related to fish. We have already mentioned in passing the reference to "salty" as implying a reference to fishers, with obvious connotations to masculinity, as in "salty seamen." The "salty seamen" are after fish, they are "chasing tail" (which can mean both fishing and the pursuit of women for sex). One hopes to find "good catch" as a romantic partner, or fish, but talk is more likely to center around "the one that good away"—again, either as partner or fish. This form of folk speech again seems to imply that fishing is a stand-in for courtship, and that fish are a stand-in for romantic or sexual interests.
This sort of "hidden discourse" contains a variety of meanings. In this view, men play the active role in an aggressive, even predatory courtship. The women are to be tempted by bait or carefully-prepared lures, but this is ultimately a deception for an act of penetrative violence. The men enjoy the camaraderie together, but it is clearly one in which there is competition as well—the most status always goes the fishermen who gets the most fish. Women-as-fish are symbolized as prizes and conquests. Women-as-fish are also symbolized by the tastiness of fresh fish (note the folk speech, to be fresh with someone well as in the derogatory references to the smell of old fish as in being an unpleasant female odor. The most enjoyable element of the pursuit, several of the jokes seem to imply, is the male companionship and camaraderie that accompanies the activity, always on the lookout for fresh fish, removed from the confines of female-dominated domesticity and familial responsibilities.
There is another common aspect of fish in American folk speech as well, and one that at first does not seem to directly correlate with gender. This is the notion of something being "fishy," that is, that there is more to the story than appears on the surface. Someone can be described as "slimy," or "slippery" as well, clearly referencing fish. There is a notion, then, that fishiness in American culture implies deceit and deceptions.
If women are the fish, then this paints women as inherently "fishy" and not to be trusted, as well as being the dupe to be tricked by the men/fishermen. To become the fish, as in swallowing a story "hook, line, and sinker," is to be caught, and to be duped. It implies that courtship is based on trickery and deceit.
Why all the fuss? Why do we have such heavily laden connotations for fish? Part of the reason may lie in the notion that such gender hostilities are not politically correct to address directly in American culture, and therefore, instead, are expressed through these coded, even subconscious, means. Such unofficial discourse provides the culture with a way to address taboo topics and politically incorrect (if not chauvinistic)  viewpoints through culturally-accepted metaphors and metonymic references. Consciously and overtly, an American male might shy away from stating that women shouldn't fish, or that he enjoys his fishing trips and companions more than his spouse and/or family; thus giving all the more reason to laugh at some of the jokes implying the same. Folklore, of course, provides this important unofficial avenue of expression.
Jokes and folk speech often display metaphorical territorial markers, in this case dividing off a whole realm of activity, knowledge, and ritual from the women's world. Occasionally misogynistic, this material displays a big "keep out" sign for women. In doing so, it not only prevents women from accompanying men in the real world of fishing and fishing trips, but also-and perhaps more significantly-maintains the status quo of the symbolism of men as fishers and women as fish, men as predators and women as prey, displayed in so much of this discourse.
Tok Thompson received his Ph.D. in Anthropology (2002) from UC Berkeley, where he also completed a master's degree under the advisement of Alan Dundes. He is the author of Ireland's Pre-Celtic Archaeological and Anthropological Heritage.
1. It may strike some as odd in this talk on folkspeech to quote prominent theorists on the European Märchen tradition, but the central problem of comprehensive motif analysis is the same. A thing, in folklore, does not stay put in its own, say, genre, but rather is to a lesser or greater extent embedded within the larger cultural and social matrix. Vaz da Silva has worked in this area examining what he terms "complex entities" bridging Märchen and mythology. Meletinsky drew from semiotic analysis in his looks at motifs in Märchen, Mythology, and Beyond. I have looked at this myself in the multi-faceted sí tradition in Ireland in its appearances from the traditional to postmodern. In American popular culture as well, things are often "complex entities" existing culturally on several different semantic registers over time, and at the same time.
2. Dundes in his "The Crowing Hen and the Easter Bunny: Male Chauvinism in American Folklore" asserted that the male gender bias in American society is widespread and pervasive, citing myriad examples. He stated, "The existence of male chauvinistic folklore is probably far more serious than the custom of patronymic naming or the male insistence upon virginity or marital fidelity so as to better establish biological paternity. It is more serious because it is not so obvious." This is not to blame the material, of course, since folklore is merely one part of the larger cultural whole. To combat chauvinism, says Dundes "one must treat the cause of disease, not just the symptoms" (174-175).
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