What is the meaning and origin of 'fine kettle of fish'?

November 05, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

(S Venkatesh, Madurai)

This expression is mostly used in everyday contexts to mean a 'difficult' or 'troublesome situation'. When you say 'this is a fine/pretty kettle of fish', you mean you have got yourself into an annoying or a messy situation.

This is a pretty/fine kettle of fish. We've had no power all morning, and my boss expects me to make my first power-point presentation in another five minutes.

Nobody is really sure about the origin of this rather peculiar idiom. The only thing that scholars are sure about is that the 'kettle' in the expression has nothing to do with the container that we use to boil water. Some believe that it refers to the 'fish kettle', an oval pan used to cook a whole fish. In fact, till about the 18th century, any large vessel that was used to boil things in, was called a 'kettle'. In the past, it was standard practice for Scottish aristocrats to entertain their neighbours during the summer by inviting them over for a picnic. Tents were put up by the riverbank, and while their master entertained his guests, the servants prepared food for them by catching fresh fish from the river and throwing them into a boiling 'kettle'. Soon, the picnic itself began to be called 'kettle of fish'. Some scholars however believe that the 'kettle' is actually a corruption of the word 'kiddle' - the net that was thrown into the river to catch fish. Since the captured fish splashed around quite a bit causing a lot of commotion, the expression began to mean 'confusing state of affairs'. Sometimes, poachers often stole the fish trapped in the kiddle, and in the process ruined the net. This led to the expression 'pretty kiddle of fish' to mean, 'sorry state of affairs'. Over a period of time, 'kiddle' became 'kettle'. Not everyone is satisfied with these explanations.

Which is correct: 'I have toothache' or 'I have a toothache'?

(CV Dinesh, Delhi)

In terms of grammar, both are correct; which sentence you use will depend on which side of the Atlantic you are from. In British English, words ending in 'ache' - 'toothache', 'earache', stomach ache', etc. - can be treated as countable or uncountable nouns. It is therefore, possible to say, 'I have earache/toothache' or 'I have an earache/a toothache'. Americans, on the other hand, treat these words as countable nouns, and therefore always include 'a/an' before them. 'Headache' is an exception to this general rule. Both the Americans and the British treat this word as a countable noun; therefore, the indefinite article 'a' always precedes it. It is always 'I have a headache'; one cannot say, 'I have headache'.

How is the word 'kowtow' pronounced?

(Hansika, Raichur)

The two syllables rhyme with the words 'how', 'now and 'vow'. The word is pronounced 'cow-TOW' with the stress on the second syllable. It is mostly used to show disapproval. When you 'kowtow' to someone in authority, you do everything you can to please him. You obey the individual unquestioningly; you pander to his every whim. In other words, you 'suck up' to the person.

Not all bureaucrats in our country kowtow to politicians.

Our government has been kowtowing to corporate interests.

The word comes from the Chinese 'kotou' meaning 'head knock'. In the past, the Chinese showed their respect for someone by kneeling before the individual and then touching the ground with his forehead.


“If a dentist makes his money on unhealthy teeth, why should I trust a toothbrush that four out of five recommend.” Unknown

S. Upendran


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