Done up like a kipper


Simon Cowell, on discovering recently that he’s going to be a daddy, is said by Britain’s Sunday Mirror to feel as though “he’s been done up like a kipper in all of this.” (The newspaper actually wrote that he “feels like he’s been done up like a kipper”, but that’s for another conversation.)

“Done [or stitched] up like a kipper”: now there’s a quaint British expression — meaning “fitted up or framed”, “used or betrayed” — that you probably won’t often hear on the other side of the Atlantic, which Mr. Cowell has a habit of crossing. No-one’s really sure where it originates from, and although there are several theories floating around about fish being cut, gutted and hung out to dry or smoke — which seem vaguely plausible — there is one suggestion by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green on Quora that doesn’t seem too fishy:

“Done up like a kipper dates back at least to the early 1980s. The general meaning is defeated, put at a total disadvantage, plus a specific sense of ‘caught red-handed’. Given the process of kippering herrings, it seems to be a play on gutted, i.e. deeply disappointed, sick and tired, fed up, utterly depressed, very upset. The slang use of kipper seems never to be positive, e.g. the post 1940s Australian definition of an English immigrant as a kipper: ‘they’re two-faced and got no guts’.”

Another fashionable theory is that it relates to a particular type and shape of tie popular in the 1960s: here’s how Phrase Finder explains it:

“In the 1960s, according to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the extra wide tie called the ‘kipper’ was in vogue. Kipper ties were introduced by the British fashion designer Michael Fish. The term ‘kipper’ was a pun on his last name ‘Fish.’ Another source ‘The A-Z of Food & Drink’ by noted lexicographer John Ayto says, in addition, that tie was also named partly for its shape (the kipper).”

Here are some other British phrases that might bemuse or bewilder in the U.S. (with links to sites that either explain or suggest their respective origins):

“All mouth and [no] trousers”: originating in northern England, the phrase is defined by Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catchphrases American and British as “noisy and worthless stuff,” applied to “a loud-mouthed, blustering fellow”. The nearest modern phrase is probably “all talk and no action”. (Fraser’s Phrases)

“Bent as a nine bob note”: meaning dishonest or corrupt. There is and was no such thing as a nine-shilling note (bob is slang for shilling), so any such item would have to be counterfeit. (Phrase Finder)

“Bob’s your uncle”: meaning “And there you have it!”.  (World Wide Words)

“Sweet Fanny Adams”: meaning basically nothing. This expression has a strangely tragic origin. It isn’t, as many believe, a polite euphemistic alternative to “f*** all and its initials, but actually dates back to a Victorian murder victim with this name, which the British Navy — so often at the heart of quirky British slang — hijacked and used to describe certain food items.  (Fraser’s Phrases)

“To queer the pitch”: meaning to spoil the business at hand (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the word queer and a history of this phrase)

“Picking up fag ends”: meaning to eavesdrop on or try and enter a conversation that is nearing its end. The “fag-end” was a term used to describe an end section of cloth or yarn in weaving (and is also an informal British term for cigarette butts).

“Give ’em what for”: meaning to punish, scold or reprimand someone; eg. from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” (a short story in Indian Tales in 1890): “‘Now,’ gasped Jakin, ‘I’ll give you what-for.’ He proceeded to pound the man’s features while Lew stamped on the outlying portions of his anatomy.” (Phrase Finder)

“Remember me to her/them”: meaning to pass on greetings in the form of a mention or reminder; eg. from Scarborough Fair, a traditional English ballad: “Remember me to one who lives there, / She once was a true love of mine.” (StackExchange)


4 thoughts on “Done up like a kipper

  1. Fay

    I am curious, have the terms “call a spade a spade” and “throw a spanner in the works” or “he is a bag of nails” not forgetting the odd “screw loose” made it across the Atlantic?

  2. Louise Post author

    Good question, Fay. I think “call a spade a spade” has made it over, and so has “screw loose” – but I’m not sure the others have. Over here, I think the American equivalent of throwing a spanner in the works is throwing a wrench in the works. And I’m not sure about “he’s a bag of nails” … Hmmm.

    1. Chris Dixon

      Specifically, “throw a monkey wrench in the works.” Or perhaps in the machinery. And how a pipe wrench became a monkey wrench is another issue altogether . . .

  3. Frank McPartland

    The term ‘Bobs your Uncle’ I’ve always known as coming from a situation where a prominent politician, maybe Robert Peel, prime minister, gave a top job to his basically useless nephew. When asked how he got the job the reply was ‘Bob was his Uncle’. So if you do a job and get results easily, it’s ‘Bobs your Uncle’. Still widely used in South England especially in the building trade. When you explain how to do a job and make out it’s straight forward and easy, this is the phrase to use. Stitching up kippers is tying them up to be smoked, traditional fishing term. Means you’ve been made a fool of and left incapable.

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