The Grammarphobia Blog

Still sleeping with the fishes

Q: After reading your entry on “sleeping with the fishes,” I ran across the usage in Moby-Dick. The passage is late in the book—so few readers get that far, it’s no wonder the reference isn’t cited on the Internet.

A: By Jove, you have it! And so do we now. It’s not the oldest written example of the usage, but we’re happy to have another 19th-century citation.

The reference, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), comes as Stubb, the second mate, recognizes the signs of the zodiac on the gold doubloon that’s nailed to the mast of the Pequod.

In this passage from Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Stubb reads the signs with the help of his almanac and interprets them as a birth-to-death calendar of human life. (For blog readers in a hurry, the usage is in the last sentence.)

“By Jove, I have it! Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I’ll read it off, straight out of the book. Come, Almanack! To begin: there’s Aries, or the Ram—lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull—he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twins—that is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path—he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that’s our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales—happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in the rear; we are curing the wound, when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside! here’s the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.”

Today the phrase “sleeping with the fishes” is associated with mob rubouts. But as we wrote in our earlier post, death has been likened to sleeping with the fishes since at least as far back as the 1830s, according to searches of digitized books.

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.”

Thanks for rounding out the picture, and all the best,

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