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Sarah Palin, from Pit Bull to Dead Fish?

When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene less than a year ago, she made a memorable impression with an animal-related witticism. In her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination at the 2008 Republican National Convention, she asked, "You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" The answer, of course, was "lipstick." Now, as Palin exits the political stage (at least for now), she has again used a metaphor drawn from the animal kingdom.

When Palin unexpectedly announced her resignation from the Alaska governorship last week, her hastily arranged press conference was full of rather perplexing turns of phrase. (I'm still trying to work out her basketball analogy.) But one part of her announcement may end up becoming lodged in our collective memory:

Life is too short to compromise time and resources... it may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: "Sit down and shut up," but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out. And a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just hunker down and "go with the flow." Nah, only dead fish go with the flow.

John Dickerson of Slate judged "only dead fish go with the flow" to be "a welcome addition to the political phrase book." But much like the line about hockey moms and pit bulls in the Convention speech, Palin's "dead fish" metaphor was not original to her. In fact, it has a history in English usage going back to the early nineteenth century.

The earliest example I've found of the "dead fish" imagery is from an 1826 issue of a British publication, The Catholic Miscellany and Monthly Repository of Information:

The Rev. Mr. Daly, of Powerscourt, a bible crusader of some celebrity, and who prefers an itinerant mode of life, to the quiet, unostentatious discharge of his pastoral duties at home, reminded his hearers of an old saying, that "live fish swim against the stream, while dead ones float with it."
(Catholic Miscellany, 1826, vol. 6, p. 71)

Note that in 1826 this was already considered "an old saying," so earlier examples can surely be found. Note also that the speaker is using the metaphor in the course of a sermon. Nineteenth-century variations on the "dead fish" saying were primarily used in religious contexts. Thomas Whittemore, editor of The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, used the expression frequently in his publication, beginning in 1830:

Dead fish go with the stream, live ones go against it.
(Thomas Whittemore, "Reply to Dr. Ely," Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, May 22, 1830, p. 186)

For Whittemore and other religious figures, the figure of speech was a useful sermonizing tool for encouraging believers to avoid mindless passivity. Better to emulate the striving, passionate vitality of the live fish, they suggest. And in the Christian context, a piscine metaphor might carry extra rhetorical weight, since the fish (or Ichthys) has long been a symbol for Jesus Christ.

Whittemore wrote of dead fish going "with the stream." Palin's version, with flow instead of stream, appears to be of a modern vintage, only dating to the late twentieth century. This is not too surprising, since the colloquial expression "go with the flow" (meaning 'to conform') is not very old — attested since 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "Only dead fish go with the flow" thus takes the old Christian adage and modernizes it with a rhyming colloquialism. This version has been floating around since at least 1989, when Bobbie Louise Hawkins used it in her collection of stories, essays, and memoirs, My Own Alphabet.

For Palin, the "dead fish" saying may have had particular resonance in keeping not only with her fishing background but with her religious background. (Compare two other evangelically tinged expressions recently used by Palin: "I know that I know that I know" and "If I die, I die" — discussed by Mark Liberman on Language Log here and here.) That resonance was no doubt lost on many listeners and pundits, who were busy trying to figure out the unstated reasons behind Palin's surprise resignation. If Palin manages to find a second life in politics, we may discern great significance in this moment when she decided not to "go with the flow." Otherwise, Palin may be remembered more as a dead fish than a pit bull with lipstick.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 9th 2009, 4:45 AM
Comment by: pjfbncyl (Tullamore Ireland)
Nah, I am not a dead fish, I surf with the flow
Thursday July 9th 2009, 7:20 AM
Comment by: LCB
Sarah Palin's colorful use of words is as refreshing as her smile. She is doomed to greatness.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Joseph V.
I for one like Sarah Palin's use of our King's English!
Thursday July 9th 2009, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
I've always wondered about this expression. In reality (fish-wise), swimming against the stream is only true of fish that are spawning. When the spawn is over, they "go with the flow" back to the ocean. Or, if not spawning, they hold their position in the river, more or less. If they're in a lake, they generally go with the flow (the lake currents caused by wind) to follow the bait fish they eat.

As for Sarah, I'm fascinated by people's reaction to her. Because her use of language is unique--especially for a politician--she is an apt candidate for an article on usage, just as any other public figure would be, such as the baseball player Yogi Berra. "You can observe a lot just by watching" he famously said.

Another forum on communications examined the CNN interview of her publicist, who was clearly unaware (from her NY location) of Sarah's announcement and gave unprepared remarks. In choosing to analyze that response, particularly the use of the word "literally," many commentors saw a bias. Does bias mean that coverage must be only positive or neutral or absent?

Zimmer's last line here is a clever amalgam of two of her famous quotes; not a predictor or slam. It's all on how you see it, eh?

I think if we were more like fish, we'd be able to decide whether it was time to hold our position, swim upstream or go with the flow.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Donald K. (San Diego, CA)
Zimmer highlights a fundamental breach in conservative Christian rationalism. Palin, and the Order inspiring her, rely on animal metaphors to communicate to a collection of individuals that ignore their biological relationship to the animal kingdom. If we are not related to fish, then how can we act like those that fight up stream? If we are not related to pit-bulls, then how can we act like them while wearing lipstick? If we are not animals then why does such communication resonate?

What good is animal-related witticism if there are no animals left to reference? Perhaps this is the most compelling argument for right-wing environmental conservation? Or the preservation of pit-bulls at least?

Obvious social commentary is reflected in the responding blog patch, which indicates that such ironies are held close, considered refreshing, colorful and preferred over inquiry, which should be avoided or canceled as the case may be.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Dennis S. (Bakersfield, CA)
Uhhh Donald...If I "fall like a star" does that mean I'm biologically related to stars?
Thursday July 9th 2009, 2:38 PM
Comment by: Tom E.
The "Dead Fish" in our great country will be those who wake up to the savaging of our Constitution and Country currently taking place. Europe learned. Everything the Government runs is a disaster including, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the passport agency, the patent office, immigration control, welfare, food stamps, the post office, etc..etc.. Without the profit motive, efficiency is elusive to the lazy parasites and bureaucrats found in every agency. I will withhold judgment on my subscription until the next left wing mindless assault on the only available political patriot on the horizon at this time. I await comments related to the great Obama, Biden, Reid, Clinton, Dodd, Barney, Nancy, and other eloquent despots. Tom Everitt, Little River, SC.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
As loyal Word Routes readers already know, this space has been used for discussions of interesting words and phrases used by politicians regardless of party affiliation. On the other side of the aisle, Obama has already provided fodder for quite a number of columns, such as his use of sweetie, green behind the ears, nonplussed, deliberate haste, glide path, enormity, take my lumps, and, of course, lipstick on a pig.

As always, I hope that commenters can keep the discussion civil and on-topic. Please keep partisan commentary to a minimum!
Thursday July 9th 2009, 6:59 PM
Comment by: Jeanne Noël (La Quinta, CA)
The basketball analogy works for me if the all the players, after passing the ball, resign, sits out the rest of the quarter and then leaves the stadium to ponder playing golf or some other sport. What would the impact of that be? I voted for this article and have become a devotee of Word Route. Thanks for all the comments and in particular Susan C.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Carolyn Russell
The fish discussion interests me far less that what I found to be the most revealing (and amazingly transparent) part of her statement:

it may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: "Sit down and shut up," but that's the worthless, easy path;

that's a quitter's way out.

I have no idea what she's talking about in the first part of this statement, other than making it clear she isn't finishing her job as governor unlike every other governor in the US -- but amazed that she then says

"that's a quitter's way out."

Geez, I thought that is the path she chose...
Sunday July 12th 2009, 10:38 AM
Comment by: James K. (Lewiston, ID)
Susan C., thanks for the bit on fishwise. It would appear in that context a few more interpretations could be had concerning the phrase. One being that only fish with a vision or guiding sense of purpose swim upstream. The rest of the fish have no reason to battle the god of comfort and pay the price of inconveniance and struggle in order that a future generation could be concieved and prosper. On the political left this could be applied to many abortions or even the furthering of national debt to ensure comfort in this generation rather than the next. On the right side of the spectrum the refusal to be set apart from corrupt political manuevers such as gerrymandering and ties to corporate conflicts of interest. Instead there is the support of self interest to preserve waning power with an outdated image rather than becoming a party of high moral standard and vision.
Friday July 31st 2009, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
These comments regarding Sarah Palin appear to be missing the key issue for the former Governor, given her experience of the past year. Being hit with numerous lawsuits, most or all? without merit, she has to hire a lawyer to defend herself. Her entire family is viciously maligned. As Alaskan Governor her hands were tied. She had to just stand there and take it. Same way the Republican "strategists" struggled to fit this Square woman into a Round hole. Let her get out there and just BE herself.

Sarah P. is a woman who has been ruthlessly attacked, over trivia, which trivializes every thing she may want to say or do. I think she will make a fortune on speaking engagements around the country. And, she can speak her mind in her own way. She knows she has become a magnet for ridicule and she doesn't care for it, especially when it touches on her family.

If she soars like an eagle, I'll cheer for her. IF she comes down with a thud, I'll be sad for her. In either event, she will have had her own voice and an opportunity to set a few things straight. I want her to have a platform from which to speak. And, to become acquainted with the citizens of this country without cruel attacks on her Alaskan lifestyle. Many in our country have lifestyles that I fail to understand. It is not ridiculed or woven into anyone's personal vendetta against a cause celeb. Sarah Palin had to get off the political merry-go-round to be free of all labels. Let the real Sarah Palin go out and become herself.
Friday July 31st 2009, 6:14 PM
Comment by: James K. (Lewiston, ID)
Marian C.

I totally agree. I also think it was a bad idea to endorse some of the jabs by playing along on SNL. She also made comments during speeches that were not conducive to creating an image of a competent, steadfast, and influential leader that she needed. I believe this is in part a result of her naive misunderstanding of how viscious the media can be mixed with a poor public relations campaign from her party.
Saturday August 1st 2009, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
James K. I appreciate knowing at least one person out there sees the side of Sarah P. that I do. Of course, she made some rookie errors on the campaign trail. I doubt I could do as well as she did. And I doubt that many of her detractors could measure up to the way she did handle things. It will be interesting to see what she plans for her future. Until she has committed some heinous crime, I'll watch and cheer her efforts.

I am a west coast woman who spent ten years in Seattle before returning home to California when my husband retired. I learned that the PNWs (Pacific North Westerners) have a culture of their own which I learned to admire. Different doesn't equal stupid or dumb. Our two sons opted to remain up there seeing no reason to go back to CA. We visit often and already see a bit of that in the three grandchildren now there. Hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Hats off to all who know who they are and go about the business of life not having to make unnecessary apologies for themselves.
Sunday August 2nd 2009, 9:08 PM
Comment by: PAT T. (BRADENTON, FL)
GLAD TO SEE THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT REALLY APPRECIATE, AND RESPECT, SARA PALINS HONESTY, AND INTELLIGENCE.
Friday August 21st 2009, 1:28 PM
Comment by: philip A.
I just don't understand the fascination with Sarah Palin. Her ability to irritate the left and to energize the right is beyond my comprenhension.A perfect example is the commentary generated on this site which I thought was dedicated to langauge and free of political debate.If anyone out there has an explanation, I would like to hear it.
Friday August 21st 2009, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
philip A.As a woman interested in supporting other than a democratic slate, I found the new face and high energy SP brought to McCain's ticket a flash of liveliness with promise. Future events put that positive person through the shredder which I found distressingly unfair to her, and also to those of us who hoped for success for this improved ticket. No point in laboring these well-hashed details. Cheering for the underdog has always been a part of the American Culture, and thus, I cheer. She must scare the bloomers off the liberal left for them to work so hard to destroy her. We'll see how that turns out overall. MC

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