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Thoughts occasioned by a visit to the fishmonger’s

April 29, 2016

Today I went to the fishmonger’s –

-monger. That’s an interesting suffix, isn’t it? It survives in only a few words now: fishmonger, ironmonger, scandalmonger and warmonger. I suppose it means ‘purveyor of’. There is also an antique word costermonger, which means seller of fruit and veg. According to Simeon Potter in Our Language, this word owes its origin to a particular kind of apple which is ‘ribbed’, from the French word côte meaning ‘rib’. The phrase custard apple apparently has the same derivation; although I don’t recall ever seeing any apple which could reasonably be described as ribbed.

Back to -monger, anyway. I don’t think it is as widely used in America as it is in Britain. At any rate, I remember when I did Hamlet at school, we used an American edition (the Signet edition) and the line where Hamlet tells Polonius that he knows him “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger” was glossed as “seller of fish”; a gloss which would be unnecessary for British readers. The gloss did also add that the phrase had a double-meaning and could mean “pimp” – this because of the association between the odour of genitals and the odour of fish. (This applied to male as well as female genitals, by the way; that is why the codpiece is so called.)

But I digress. Today I went to the fishmonger’s and bought four beautiful sea basses, and we are going to eat them for supper.

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2 Comments
  1. The Fishmonger: What would you like sir?

    Brandon Robshaw: Four sea bass please.

  2. Kanani permalink

    I suppose it depends on where you were raised in the USA and when. I was raised in the 60’s and ’70’s not far from the San Francisco Bay Area, and remember using the words “fishmonger,” (probably watching way too much Julia Child), “ironmonger,” (my uncle was a union steelworker) and also seeing the word (and hearing it) “warmonger,” during protests. I also remember the words scaremonger (purveyor of fear?), gossipmonger (a speaker of malicious untruths) and worshipmonger –probably used by my atheist neighbor.

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