First, we must consider the process responsible for the characteristic odor emanating from fish that is not as fresh as it should be. Other than a distinctive saline aroma for fish pulled from ocean and estuaries, or an earthy, some might say algae-like smell for soft-water fish, if it’s fresh, it don’t smell much!
Air exposure is the culprit. This causes a component of fish tissue called triethylamine to break down, releasing the distinctively unpleasant odor associated with spoilage. Hence the connection with fishmongers. An obvious connection, for sure, yet we rarely think about it. As with most cultural parlance, we just know what it means and need not consider the source. Fish… source… a bit of pun fun before we continue.
Bad smell is not a bad thing. It lets us know, instinctively, to refrain from ingesting substances that might otherwise harm us, if not worse. Nature is clever that way. And we are clever when we instinctively understand that self-respect and self-preservation demand we stay away from a person, business deal or endeavor that smells fishy. It may seem appealing or innocent, like a big, shiny catch fresh out of water, but we know we are being deceived.
The expression, “something smells fishy” predates artificial refrigeration, a technology that was developed between about 1750 and the first quarter of the 1800’s. The first commercial ice-making devices come into use in the second half of the 19th century. Home refrigerators arrive on the scene in 1913.
This brings the expression back to its rightful place with fish merchants and most likely those operating in coastal waters as they offered the product volume and opportunity for spoilage and shady practices. The earliest known recorded reference is a definition of the word “fishy” in 1840. It places usage around late 15th-century Europe and goes on to associate the term with “fish-like,” “slimy” and “slipperiness.”
Some students of the history of our language consider the suggestion of 15th century usage a bit fishy. In support of their argument, they suggest that the urban fish markets of the early 1800’s provided the most likely environment for the expression to emerge as the concentration of fish mongers in that particular setting would definitely have made shady practices and spoiled product an issue.
It is difficult to get hooked (yes, another fishy pun) on a specific timeline with this expression as it was in fact preceded by such variations as, “fishy eyes,” and “slippery as fish,” both of which are known to have come into usage in the 1500’s.
One thing is certain: humans have been engaging in fish commerce for thousands of years. And this is why, no matter where you go on the planet and what timeline you pick, everyone understands “something smells fishy.” And tricksters always get caught, eventually.
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