Slate, “Who Coined the Term ‘Catfish’?”

January 18, 2013

Aisha Harris, “Who Coined the Term ‘Catfish’?” (Slate, Jan. 18, 2013)

The earliest version of the story that I’ve seen is from Henry W. Nevinson, whose 1913 book Essays in Rebellion was pointed out to me by the linguist Ben Zimmer. In one of those essays, “The Catfish,” Nevinson tells essentially the same tale—though the British Nevinson refers to the European fishing industry, rather than its North American equivalent. Nevinson explicitly compares the catfish anecdote to other allegorical Christian stories, including the tale of Faust and Mephistopheles and the Parable of the Leaven. For Nevinson, a noted suffragist, the catfish is Christianity itself, without which “the soul of Europe” would “have degenerated into a flabbiness, lethargy, and desperate peace.”

Zimmer points out that Nevinson’s essay may have been published in a periodical some time before Essays in Rebellion  came out; it is cited in Charles Marriott’s novel The Catfish, which was also published in 1913.

Read the rest here. (Related Boston Globe column)

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