Fishwife: A Tale of Unpopularity

I have the world’s most amazing thesaurus–the “Bartlett’s Roget’s Thesaurus,” to be exact. The bottom of the cover of my hardback volume reads, “The marriage of two great names in reference.” It’s over 1400 pages and of great value to me as a reader, writer, and general lover of words.

When I was brainstorming names for this blog, my family and I threw a lot of different words and combinations of words out there. “Jen’s Jellyfish Journals,” was one. “Bunks, Buoys, and Babies,” was another. “Dock Talk,” and “Fish Tales,” was two more. As I told my good friend, Heidi, the fun was endless. Finally, one evening I cornered George and asked for his input.

“Fishwife,” he suggested. “How about that?”

I wasn’t sure. The word was a little too bland, a little too self-explanatory. I assumed that “fishwife” simply meant what it implied; a lady married to the world of fishing. Whether that marriage was by boat or cannery, whether it was on shore, at sea, or by some other means, I didn’t know. So, I did what anyone would do. I grabbed my thesaurus and looked it up. The following is what I read.


“Irascible person…grump…grouch. Nag, harridan, spitfire, shrew, vixen…witch, she-devil…tiger, hothead, bear…crab, crank, crosspatch, sorehead, battle-ax.”

Well, my goodness! I read the definition out loud to George, who of course had a tremendous laugh over the matter and reiterated what an excellent title for my blog it would still make—more now than ever, it seemed.

Later, I asked my mom (also the wife of a fisherman) if she was familiar with the official definition of fishwife. I started to explain what I’d discovered, but she cut me off. “Oh yes,” she said, and nodded knowingly. “It’s terrible. Fishwife. Not good.” She looked at me again, this time with pity and maybe even a trace of disdain at my ignorance.

This year for her second birthday, my daughter received a book from my friend, Kim. The book is entitled,

The Fisherman and His Wife—a Tale of Moderation.”

It is a small children’s book about a poor fisherman and his wife who live in a cottage by the river. One day, the fisherman catches a magic fish who offers to grant the fisherman a wish if he sets the fish free. The fisherman says there is nothing he needs, and sets the fish free anyway.

Of course, when the fisherman returns home that evening, he is in big trouble. His wife certainly has a wish; a nicer house!

The fish grants the wish. The fisherman is satisfied, but his wife isn’t just yet. Oh, no. She sends her husband right back to that river and demands that the fish put her in a castle.

She sends him back for a third time with the demand that she be made queen. Next, that the sun not be allowed to rise or set without her permission. And so the story goes—the wife becoming more and more greedy, the fisherman more and more sad and confused.

In the end, the wife concedes her greed and returns to feeling happy and satisfied with the life she and the fisherman have made; a life that includes a small cottage in which to live and a nice, plain fish for dinner.

It’s a useful tale, but here’s my question—why is the book called The Fisherman and His Wife? Why not The Plumber and His Wife? Or, The Professor and His Wife? The Real Estate Agent and His Wife? The Policeman and His Wife? The Accountant, the Teacher, the Contractor?

I just don’t know.

Do you?


  1. This was a tale of times long ago, so probably could include the cobblers wife, the bakers wife, etc. Anyway we have a bad rap!

  2. I think the author simply wanted to use an activity children would understand, to make her/his point about being ‘greedy’. Of course, it could be the author feels commercial fishermen and their wives are more inclined to be greedy. I’m more incline to feel the ‘mystery’ of commercial fishing lends itself to a ‘magical’ fish. People are interested in the unknown. The enormous popularity of the Discovery Channels’, ‘Most Dangerous Catch’, is because it allowed the general population a window into the ‘mystery’ associated with commercial fishing. Other occupations tend to be unmagical by comparison, with few unknowns, few unexpected events, a regular schedule and known pay. Regular, 9 to 5 work, although best for most, is not ‘rainbow chasing’, and there is little to ‘throw back’, to right the wrong. I can understand your question,however, because ‘lines’ can be inappropriately crossed (no pun intended). My Mother, who was married to a lifetime commercial fisherman, would be very annoyed by the oft asked question, “How’s the fishing”? She might reply, “OK, how’s the lawyering”?

Leave a Reply