by Ken Carpenter
I have always wondered why a fishwife has such an evil reputation. As is my way, I dug into the matter a little on the Internet. There are 14,600 websites that mention fishwife.
There is a band called Fishwife, numerous restaurants named Fishwife, and thousands of sites that only mention them in passing.
A fishwife is defined as ‘A person, traditionally a woman, who persistently nags or criticizes.’
Roget’s Thesaurus lists fury, harpy, scold, shrew, termagant, virago, vixen and the less formal battle-ax as words you could use instead of fishwife. That is a heady brew of vile tempered wenches, though in truth I would only recognize a termagant or a virago if they walked up to me and started cussing me out.
A fishwife was the wife of a fisherman, and as is usually the case she probably had the harder job. When the boats came back into port with their catch, a bevy of fishwives would be there to greet them. Each carried a large wicker basket strapped to her back for lugging the fresh fish back to the streets of the town to sell.
Unfortunately for the overloaded fishwives, city center was never very close to sea level. The towns were always at least on the next level above the ocean, and more often than not would be a mile or more uphill.
Their baskets held from 50 to over 100 pounds of odorous fish. The fishwives must have been a hardy breed. I don’t know about anyone else but if I had to haul a hundred pounds of smelly fish several miles uphill I would have been very cranky indeed by the time I started peddling my wares on a dusty street corner.
Fishwives all dressed the same, wearing multiple layers of short petticoats to act as a saddle for the creel on their back, as well as protection against the weather and padding against the friction of the heavy creel. They also wore long black stockings and sun bonnets, and if their reputation is warranted, a surly expression on their face.
The creels had a strap on them that fit around the forehead of the belaboring fishwife to keep the load from shifting around any more than it had to. The more industrious of them would knit stockings as they hiked, while the rest probably chewed nails to improve their disposition.
In the old days fish was the only meat the poor could afford. This meant that after the fishwives muled their heavy loads to their designated spot on the street, they had to haggle with one buyer after another to whom a few cents was not a trivial amount. Irritation heaped on irritation from the sounds of it.
When they sold all of their fish, it was back to the boat for more. This time they would have the added frustration of divvying up their fishly gains with their husbands, who were dying for an ale about that time.
So as the fishwife groans her way up the hill with her second load, she gets to watch her poor, overworked spouse hurry on ahead of her to claim his stool at the pub.
“Grrrrrrrrrrr,” goes the fishwife, and the legend is born.
It must be said that many fishwives suffered their plight with humor and dignity, as humans are inclined to do as often as not. There were still enough of them whose witchery was pronounced to doom the rest to live forever as the epitome of a nag.
So the next time you hear your neighbor’s wife, or your neighbor for that matter, scolding and criticizing in a high-pitched voice, don’t call them a fishwife.
Just say “Sheesh, what a termagant they are!”