Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Meaning of Idiom ‘Neither Fish Nor Fowl’

When something is neither fish nor fowl it is odd and not easily fit into any specific category or group.

Examples Of Use

“Although the book is a reference volume it also contains many controversial statements, making critics pan it as neither fish nor fowl.”

“The first attempt at a flying car was neither fish nor fowl. It was not quite a car and not quite an airplane.”

Origin

Other rarely heard versions of this idiom are neither fish nor flesh and neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. As well, John Heywood’s list of proverbs (1546) contained another version: Neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring. It is suggested that the current idiom arose from this proverb from the 16th century.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, this idiom derives from dietary laws of the church, having to do with abstaining from certain foods or fasting.

More specifically, and according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the expression alludes to three different categories of foods meant for monks, the people, and the poor. Fish was for monks, as they abstained from meat; flesh or meat was for the lay people, and red herring, a cheap fish, was for the poor. Fish would have come first because during the Middle Ages the clergy took precedence over the laity. This origin is offered in The Dictionary of Idiomatic English by James Dixon (1891), as well as other sources of the time.

The original meaning of the idiom referred to something that was not fit for any class of people, or not fit for one thing or the other.

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