Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

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 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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