photograph: The Grocer
The phrase a pretty (or fine) kettle of fish means an awkward state of affairs.
There is an obvious error in the Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition – 1901): under the headword kettle in the general sense of a vessel for boiling water or other liquids, appears the term kettle net, meaning a form of net used in fishing for mackerel.
There is no relation between kettle in the sense of a vessel and kettle net, because in the latter term kettle is a variant of kiddle. And indeed, in the same edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, kettle net also appears under the headword kiddle, a noun denoting a dam or other barrier in a river, with an opening fitted with nets to catch fish.
(The noun kettle is from Old English cetel, cietel, of Germanic origin, based on Latin catillus, diminutive of catinus, meaning deep container for cooking or serving food. The unrelated noun kiddle is from Anglo-Norman forms such as kidel and Old French forms such as quidel, of obscure origin.)
The noun kiddle has been used in various forms; for example, the English antiquarian and lexicographer Thomas Blount (1618-79) wrote, in Nomo-lexikon: A Law-dictionary (1670):
Kiddle, Kidel, or Kedel: A Dam, or open Wear [= weir] in a River, with a loop or narrow cut in it, accommodated for the laying of Weels [= traps], or other Engins to catch Fish. [...] Fishermen corruptly call them Kettles.
Similarly, a kiddle net could also be called a kettle net. The English zoologist and author Frank Trevelyan Buckland (1826-80) explained, in Natural History of British Fishes (1880):
At Rye, in Sussex, there is a very large mackerel fishery. The mackerel here are caught in large fixed nets, called kettle nets; hence, probably, the phrase ‘What a pretty kettle of fish!’
And, in Errors of Speech and of Spelling (1877), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) wrote:
Kiddle, a basket for catching fish. [...] “A pretty kiddle of fish” corrupted into “A pretty kettle of fish”, a fine mess has been made, a dilemma.
It is therefore most likely that the phrase a pretty kettle of fish originally referred to a net full of fish, which, when drawn up with its contents, is suggestive of confusion, flurry and disorder.
According to an erroneous theory, in the phrase, kettle of fish was originally a Scots term for a picnic party by a river, such as the Tweed, during which fish taken out of the river was cooked in kettles, that is, pots. This Scots term is first recorded in Prospects and observations: on a tour in England and Scotland: natural, oeconomical, and literary, by the Scottish minister and author William Thomson (1746-1817), writing under the pseudonym of Thomas Newte, Esqu., of Devon (this book was published in 1791 but the observations themselves were made in 1785):
It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre, which they call giving “a kettle of fish.” Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river, on some grassy plain; a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles. The fish, thus prepared, is very firm, and accounted a most delicious food.
If this was the origin of the phrase, you would expect its earliest attestations to occur in Scottish contexts, or to be written by Scots. But this is not the case since these earliest attestations appear in books written by Englishmen and set in English contexts:
– In Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-41), an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761):
‘Well, niece,’ strutting with his hands behind him, and his head held up—‘Ha!—He has made a fine kettle on’t—han’t he!—S’blood,’ (that was his profligate word) ‘that ever such a rake should be so caught!’
– In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742), by Henry Fielding:
The surgeon had likewise at last visited him, and washed and dressed his wounds, and was now come to acquaint Mr. Tow-wouse, that his guest was in such extreme danger of his life, that he scarce saw any hopes of recovery.—Here’s a pretty kettle of fish, cries Mrs. Tow-wouse, you have brought upon us! We are like to have a funeral at our own expense.
This means, additionally, that the phrase is first recorded long before Thomas Newte observed the Scottish “fêtes champêtres” in 1785. Furthermore, these outings must have been enjoyable events; otherwise they would simply not have taken place. It is therefore difficult to understand why they should have become proverbially associated with muddle.
This erroneous theory might be due to the fact that in the Oxford English Dictionary, kettle of fish in the sense of picnic party and the phrase a pretty kettle of fish are under the same headword. This has led to a phenomenon typical of folk etymologies, that is, stories fabricated in order to give them a semblance of authenticity. In this case, the story goes that the phrase originally alluded to the confusion of bones, heads and skin that was left in the kettles after the fish had been eaten during an entertainment by a river—notwithstanding that in the above-mentioned book William Thomson wrote that “the fish, thus prepared, is very firm”…