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Notorious Victorian fishwife Dolly Peel, of South Shields.

A fishwife or fish fag[1] is a woman who sells fish.[2] Such women were notoriously loud and foul-mouthed as in the expression, To swear like a fishwife. One reason for their outspokenness is that their wares were highly perishable and so lost value if not sold quickly.[3]The term also commonly refers to a mean-spirited woman who collects other people's gossip and spreads it around to all and sundry. In modern Britain it is an insult to call someone a fishwife. For example "She yells like a fishwife and I can't stand it."

Billingsgate

London's traditional fish market was frequented by such types who were known as "the wives of Billingsgate". "They dressed in strong 'stuff' gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one indistinguishable mass upon their heads. ... They smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin and were known for their colourful language."[4]

Newhaven

The Scottish fishwives of Newhaven had quite a different reputation, being noted for their beauty and industry, and celebrated by royalty — George IV and Queen Victoria. They were hard-bargainers though, and all the fisherman of the Firth of Forth brought their catches to Newhaven for the fishwives to sell in Edinburgh. The fishwives wore distinctive costumes of blue duffle coats covering layers of colourful striped petticoats with a muslin cap or other similar headdress. Their fish, such as haddock and herring, were carried on their backs in creels.[5]

References

  1. ^ Billingsgate in E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898; online at Bartleby.com
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oed.com. Retrieved 2008-04-27. "A woman who sells fish"  
  3. ^ Gary Taylor (1981), "Touchstone's Butterwomen", The Review of English Studies (Oxford University Press) XXXII (126): 187–193, doi:10.1093/res/XXXII.126.187, http://res.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/citation/XXXII/126/187  
  4. ^ Peter Ackroyd (2003). London: The Biography. Anchor. ISBN 0385497717.  
  5. ^ James Glass Bertram, The harvest of the sea, pp. 424 et seq., http://books.google.com/books?id=-os9AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA424  
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