Neither fish nor flesh
Rather like the later phrase, betwixt and between, neither fish nor flesh and its alternative formulation, neither fish nor fowl, means something that is indeterminate or difficult to classify, something that is neither one thing nor another.
For Christian folk, at least until the schism between Catholics and Protestants, fasting was part of their religious observances. During Lent and on every Friday throughout the year, they were meant to restrict their intake to one full meal which excluded meat. It was therefore of importance to determine what fell into what category and the ecclesiastical authorities helpfully categorised foodstuffs into flesh, meaning the flesh of land animals, fish and fowl. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his influential Summa Theologica in the 13th century, summed up the church’s attitude to meat. As animals were more like man in body, they gave greater pleasure as food and were, therefore, inimical to the purpose of fasting, namely “to bridle concupiscences of the flesh”.
Over time, though, what constituted a fish, particularly important to those following a pescatarian diet during Lent, became more open to interpretation. The Bishop of Quebec, in the 17th century, decreed that a beaver, of which there was a plentiful supply in the area, were fish and as recently as 2010 the Bishop of New Orleans advised his flock that “alligator is considered in the fish family”. These vagaries of classification gave rise to our phrase.
However, the earliest recorded instance of its usage, to describe Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic clergy in a satire entitled Rede me and nott be wrothe for I say no thynge but trothe by William Roy and Jerome Barlow in 1528, is as an insult; “whom they call Doctour Standisshe/ wone that is neither fleshe nor fisshe/ at all tymes a comen lyer”. The transposition of the terms is merely to preserve the rhyme. I suspect Henry Standish, one time Bishop of St Asaph, was singled out because of the rhyming quality of his surname.
The epigrammatist, John Heywood, provided an extended version of the phrase in his A dialogue conteinying the number in effect of all the prourbes in the englishe tongue, published in 1546. There he records, “she is nother fishe nor fleshe nor good hearyng”. Apparently, herring cured in saltpetre turns a reddish colour.
One of Shakespeare’s best characters, in my humble opinion, is the bluff and boastful, John Falstaff. In Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, scene 5, when discussing the charms and qualities of mine hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly, he compares her with a beast. When asked by the concerned Quickly which beast, we are treated to this exchange, Prince Hal making up the threesome; “Falstaff: What beast? Why an Otter. Prince: An otter sir John, why an otter? Falstaff: Why? Shees neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to haue her”. Interestingly, Shakespeare plays on the fluid status in the theological system of the taxonomy of creatures that look animals but spend a good proportion of their time in the water. The Bishop of Quebec may have taken note.
A later development, perhaps, of the phrase was to turn into an expression denoting the making of an invidious choice or to show partiality by adding or implying the verb to make to it. A correspondent to the Fife Free Press on December 3, 1892 has been outraged by the decision to arraign a draper, one Mr Skinner, for displaying his goods on the pavement. “Why should”, he fumed, “they pounce upon any one individual to make a test case of, while others, who offend more heinously, are allowed to continue unmolested? This, however, is generally the way in Kirkcaldy, Fish of one, flesh of another”.
These days, though, we talk of neither fish nor fowl b ut the principle and the original derivation is the same.