Smell Something Fishy (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Smell Something Fishy"?

The term "smell something fishy" means to be suspicious of something or to detect that something isn't quite right.
Smell Something Fishy (Origin)
This idiom comes in many forms, e.g., "that looks fishy," "that's a fishy situation," "seems fishy to me." However it appears, "suspicious" will be a good translation for the word "fishy."

"To smell something fishy" and all its variants originate from the fish markets of the early 1800s, when the smell of a fish would provide a good indication of its freshness. Unscrupulous fishmongers would claim their fish was fresh, but the smell of their fish would often tell a different story. This idea is well captured in this quotation:
  • Fish is the only food that is considered spoiled once it smells like what it is. (Humorist PJ O'Rourke)
As a fishy-smelling fish would raise suspicion about its freshness, "fishy" has now become a synonym for "suspicious."

Examples of Use:

  • I thought something smelled fishy. When I checked, six of my employees were working from the Maldives.
  • This deal smells fishy. Why is the car so cheap?
  • That man in the hat and sunglasses looks a bit fishy to me.

Competing Theory

The word "fishy" comes from the idea that fish are slippery. "Slippery" has long been used a metaphor for someone who is crafty and devious.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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