The Grammarphobia Blog

Sleeping with the fishes

Q: During Pat’s WNYC discussion of euphemisms for death, a caller mentioned the expression “sleep with the fishes.” I believe it originated with the first Godfather movie. After Luca Brasi is thrown into the sea, Tessio carries in Brasi’s bullet-proof vest with a fish inside. Sonny says, “What the hell is this?” Tessio says: “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

A: That line from the 1972 movie undoubtedly helped popularize the expression, but it didn’t originate with The Godfather or even with the Mafia, which arose in Sicily in the 1860s.

A search of books digitized by Google suggests that the expression was alive and well in English at least as far back as the 1830s and probably earlier.

In Sketches of Germany and the Germans (1836), Edmund Spencer describes a trip by a British angler to an area occupied by superstitious villagers who considered fly fishing a form of black magic:

“This terrible apprehension was soon circulated from village to village: the deluded peasants broke in pieces the pretty painted magic wand, and forcibly put to flight the magician himself, vowing, with imprecations, if he repeated his visit, they would send him to sleep with the fishes.”

Here’s one more fishy example. An article from the July 15, 1905, issue of The Search-Light, a magazine specializing in international affairs, describes an attempt by the Russian fleet to capture a pirate ship:

“After her at full speed hurried the torpedo boat ‘Smetilvy,’ manned by a crew of officers and faithful blue jackets, and pledged to send the rebels to sleep with the fishes.”

We couldn’t find any citations for “sleep with the fishes” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED does have an entry from an 1891 slang dictionary of “feed the fishes” used figuratively to mean “to be drowned.”

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