Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

EUPHEMISMS

Some of the names given to herrings together with the associated logics and a brief digression on the subject of Bombay duck

EUPHEMISMS

The Silver Darlings – from their silvery skins and the silver they brought to the fishing communities – gave their name to Neil Gunn’s 1941 herring fishing saga of North East Scotland after the Highland Clearances, but the fish went by many other names.

Sailors, whose reluctance to eat fish at sea could flower into obstinate superstition (eat the fishes and you will sleep with the fishes) were responsible for a number of the euphemisms.

The resilience and cheapness of smoked and salted herring made the fish attractive when provisioning voyages and so they became Yarmouth capons, Billingsgate pheasants, Digby chicks or Digby chickens. Digby is a fishing port in Nova Scotia not far from the herrings of Fundy Bay.

The term Digby chicken was first recorded between 1915 and 1920 and probably grew out of the earlier English usages. The more widely known surviving example of this kind of euphemism for preserved fish is Bombay duck, which is dried bombil or bummalo.

Some say this was named after the Bombay Daak, the mail train that once carried it and smelt of it, but dried bombil in Marathi is takh bombil, which would seem to be a more obvious origin.

Sailors also used to call red herrings sodgers (soldiers). Nothing to do with the suggestion that ‘herring’ derives etymologically from heer (Germanic: army), it reverses the use of ‘redcoat’ for soldier.

The great Welsh natural historian Thomas Pennant runs with the metaphor in his British Zoology (1766), describing the herring shoals as brigades coming down the coasts of Scotland – perhaps mirroring the British army on pacification duties after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The redcoats, of course, may not always have been greeted as examples of the divine providence Pennant saw in the shoals of herring.

Along this line, they were also known as militiamen in East Anglia. In Scotland, on the other hand, picking up on the red robes, they were called Glasgow magistrates.