Daily Mail

Talking rot about fish

- Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Does a fish actually rot from the head? THE idea that a fish rots from the head down is based on a proverb, the inference being that when the head of a group or company, or a country or council leader, is rotten, the rest will follow: a problem can be traced back to the boss.

This dates from 16th- century Italy: ‘If the proverbe be true . . . that a fishe beginneth . . . to smell at the head . . . the faultes of our servantes will be layed uppon us’ (Stefano Guazzo, Civil Conversati­on, 1574).

Its first use in an English book is in An Account Of Two Voyages To New England, 1674, by John Josselyn: ‘The first part that begins to taint in a fish is the head.’

Sir James Porter’s Observatio­ns on the religion, law, government, and manners of the Turks, 1768, states: ‘The Turks . . . say “the fish stinks first at the head”, meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.’

The proverb is just a metaphor. Fish rot from the inside. Decomposit­ion is caused by the increased activity of bacteria, which multiply in warm, humid conditions.

There are many bacteria in the digestive tract and, to a lesser extent, in the gills. It’s from here that decomposit­ion spreads. The gut organs go first. You’ll know it is rotten when you cut it open and everything pours out — internal tissue turns liquid.

When selecting fish, look at the belly; if it is brown and the bones are breaking through the skin, it’s rotten. Colin Moorhead, Whitby. QUESTION Has anyone been able to attend their own funeral? FURTHER to the earlier answer, aside from attending his own funeral, another eccentric act by Timothy Dexter of Massachuse­tts was the publicatio­n of his polemic A Pickle For The Knowing Ones or Plain Truths In A Homespun Dress. In this book he complained about politician­s, the clergy and his wife.

The book used random capital letters and no punctuatio­n. In the second edition, Dexter added a page of 13 lines of punctuatio­n with instructio­ns that readers could use it as they pleased!

Allan Dower, Cardiff.

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