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This study deals primarily with the proverb "Neither fish nor flesh"[1] and its variations, but also serves the larger purpose of illustrating by a concrete example some typical problems in folklore studies. It is convenient to use a proverb for this purpose because the texts used in the discussion are brief and can be quoted in full and because they can be easily gathered in generous quantity. We must first determine the form or forms of the proverb, their relative ages and their distribution. When we have accomplished these tasks we can draw some tentative inferences. There is always the chance that a later comer may point out an overlooked text that will raise doubts about our inferences but that is unavoidable. We shall comment on origins and try to explain the variations and finally arrive at a more or less satisfactory idea of the history of the development. The fundamental importance of dated and localized texts in such endeavors is obvious.

The first English version of our proverb is reported by Morris P. Tilley A Dictionary of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), F 319: "Wone [One] that is nether flesshe nor fisshe" and is dated 1528. He cites another instance from Gammer Gurton's Needle (1552, published 1575) and an enlarged version "Neither flesh nor fish nor good red herring" from 1621. To the last of these we shall return a little later. No one appears to have found more versions of the first form. They are independent witnesses to a tradition that enjoyed no great popularity and soon ceased to maintain itself. If we look abroad for parallels, the first we find is in the last edition of the Adagia made by Erasmus (d. 1534). Here we read: "Neque intus neque foris... simili figura dicunt hodie neque caro neque piscis, de homine qui sibi vivet, nec ullarum est partium."[2] Erasmus has used it to explain another saying ("Neither in nor out") that has much the same meaning, but he does not give a source for either. He often cited texts from popular speech and we can infer that he was familiar with it in Dutch. This association of the two texts is useful in identifying borrowings from the Adagia. There is no reason to see any connection between the Dutch and English texts and we can believe that they reflect early sixteenth-century tradition on the two sides of the North Sea. In the Low Countries the proverb had subsequendy a somewhat greater success than it had in England. Stoett reports Dutch instances from a novel of 1785, a modern miscellany, and a modern pedagogical journal. He adds a Frisian parallel and the French "Ni chair ni poisson," for which he gives no sources or dates. The long break in the record suggests that the modern instances may represent a borrowing of the French proverb rather than a continuing tradition. In 1639 Orlando Pescetti cited an Italian version (the first edition of 1603 not seen), but the reference includes "Neque intus neque foris" and is probably Erasmian in origin.[3]With this scanty evidence it is not possible to do much. We can perhaps infer that "Neither flesh nor fish" was the original form of the proverb and that only in French did it establish itself securely enough to remain the standard form. Probably euphony was the determining factor. It is difficult to say how far the French form influenced tradition in other countries.

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Similar contrasts employing other terms are both old and numerous. We may begin with the Biblical "thou are neither hot nor cold" (Rev.)

English: Neither here nor there; Neither the one nor the other; Neither this nor that; Neither head nor tail; Neither hawk nor buzzard; Without rhyme or reason.

Spanish: Ni chica ni limonada. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi, Refranero dominicano (Rome, 1950), p. 194 adds the comment "Dice Alix en sus décimas Se acabo la carestia:

Los pobres no pueden ya
soportar cosa tan seria,
porque morir de miseria
no es chicha ni lomoná.

Examples can be easily gathered from collections by Correas and Francisco Rodríguez Marín.

Arabic: Como el avestruz, ni pájaro ni caballo (Demorizi).

Russian: Neither fish nor butter (A. V. Kunin, Anglo-russkii frazeologiceskii slovar', 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1954), p. 390, F 639).

More proverbs or proverbial phrases of this sort can no doubt be turned up, but these are enough to show that the contrast in "Neither fish nor flesh" is a widely used pattern. Since this involves familiarity with the church rule for ordinary days and fast days, it was probably originally expressed in Latin and then translated into vernacular forms that suited these languages. Some have insisted that it reflects religious controversy of the sixteenth century,[11] and this may be a correct interpretation of the lack of medieval texts. Controversy naturally increased general awareness of the contrast in religious practices. In England, but apparently less often in other countries, the contrast of fish and flesh caught popular fancy, and expansion and variation followed: "Neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring" is a whimsical enlargement. Much later, when the allusion to the church rule was no longer in everyone's mind, it became possible to say "Neither fish, flesh, nor fowl," in which "fowl" is from the theological point of view a meaningless duplication suggested by alliteration. It is hardly likely that there is a reference here to the three elements water, earth, and air, for this version does not occur before the middle of the nineteenth century. By that time the concept of the elements (fire obviously does not come into consideration) can hardly have influenced a traditional proverb. I see nothing to support an oral suggestion that there is here an allusion to characteristic foods of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.

The details we have studied throw light on the cultural history of the western world and show how what was once significant has declined in importance. Why this saying in its many forms should have been so much more popular in England than in other countries remains a puzzle. The folklorist will note the enormous value of dated and localized texts in interpretation and will call for a dozen more to clarify this history.


The foregoing discussion illustrates perhaps sufficiently well the proverb "Neither fish nor fowl" in western European tradition and the remarkable number and variety of its forms in English use. I cannot see why it has been so popular in England and America. As I have said, we can probably find its origin in Christian ritual and in further support of this explanation I add the Polish "Nie ryba, nie mieso" and the Russian "Ni ryba ni mjaso.''[12] Both mean "Neither fish nor flesh." They are eastern examples of the same widespread tradition. More interesting than these examples is the Finnish "Hänestä ei tiedä, onko hän kala vai lintu" (One does not know what kind of man he is, whether he is fish or bird).[13]

The parallel Estonian "Ei ole lindu ega kala" (He is neither a bird nor a fish / That is, he is a strange man) in oral tradition is to the same effect and indicates a common tradition. I do not readily see an explanation for it except the obvious fact that birds and fish are very different in every regard. The curious traditional Polish "Nie pies, nie wydra, / Cos w'rodzaju swidra" (Neither dog, nor otter, / Something like a bore [i.e., a drill]), suggests extending the search for parallels. I know nothing like it.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 122-128

  1. I use this form in the title and for general reference because it is short and is still in general use.
  1. Chil. IV, cent. v, n. 44. See also F. A. Stoett, Nederlandsche spreekwoorden..., 4th ed., 2 vols. (Zutphen, 1924, 1925), II, 425, No. 2415. I have used Adagia (Paris, 1579), col. 862.

  2. Cited from W. H. D. Suringar, Erasmus over nederlandsche spreekwoorden... (Utrecht, 1873), pp. 250--251, No. 139. This and many others of Suringar's citations include "Neque intus neque foris" and are obviously derived from the Adagia. Some give "Neque albus atque ater" as a parallel and thus betray that they also are book learning and not folk tradition. I have not learned from what book they have been taken.

  3. 'To make flesh of one and fish of the other" may be a derivative of the form first discussed or it may be a chance variation.

  4. See Die sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der deutschen Sprache, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1955), pp. 147--148. The passage cited from Fischart is a translation of a Dutch original.
  5. A. H. Holt, Phrase Origins (New York, [l934]), p. 274. This conjecture has been taken from E. C. Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

  6. See T. Vogel-Jørgensen, Bevingede ord, 4th ed. (Copenhagen, 1953), pp. 375--376.

  7. Although mention of "fowl" is lacking, this anomalous text of uncertain origin may be included here. Dixon gives it as an explanation and may have concocted it himself.

  8. Cited by Stoett; Vogel-Jørgensen; and with precise references in the Ordbog over det danske sprog, IV (Copenhagen, 1922), col. 1042; Ordbog över svenska språket, IX (Lund, 1928), cols. 1969--1970.

  9. C. E. Funk, A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions (New York, [1948]), p. 93.

  10. See K. F. W. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörterlexikon, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1867--1880), I, col. 1039, No. *263. His quotations require verification by comparisons with the sources and include nothing that seems to justify this labor.

  11. I owe this oral Polish text to the kindness of a friend. The Russian may be found in A. V. Kunin, Anglo-russkij frazeologicheskij slovar', 2d ed. (Moscow, 1952), p. 390 and in B. Tougan-Baranovskaia, Proverbes et dictons russes avec des équivalents français (Moscow, n. d.), p. 44, No. 389. According to the French idiom, the order of the parts is reversed in the French equivalent.

  12. Matti Sadeniemi, Nykysuomen sanakirja (Porvoo-Helsinki, 1954), III, 178. Elsewhere (II, 158) the author offers the slightly differing explanation, "what kind of man he is, trustworthy or untrustworthy, or something like that." The Estonian version is from oral tradition.

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