Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself

Last night, I had the distinct displeasure of having one of the stupidest arguments I have ever had on Twitter.

It concern Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of the word “fish.” Or more precisely, fissh, as in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales:

An housholdere, and that a greet, was he;
Seint Julian was he in his contree.
His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon,
A bettre envyned man was nowher noon.
Withoute bake mete was nevere his hous
Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentevous,
It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke,
Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke.
After the sondry sesons of the yeer,
So chaunged he his mete and his soper.
Ful many a fat partrich hadde he in muwe,
And many a breem and many a luce in stuwe.
Wo was his cook, but if his sauce were
Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his geere.
His table dormant in his halle alway
Stood redy covered al the longe day.

You see, in Chaucer’s usage, the word “fish” (or “fissh”) includes the animals that we and he call “whales,” as when the Summoner in the The Summoner’s Tale says

My thynketh they been lyk Jovinyan,
Fat as a whale, and walkynge as a swan…

Chaucer was quite aware that whales are very big animals.  “Fat as a whale” is such an obvious trope that no one should be surprised to find it in Chaucer—and I’m sure it was already old in his Middle English.

The argument was on this point: My opponents contended that Chaucer’s used of the word “fish” was WRONG.

They kept making endless version of the point that whales are a very different kind of animal than the aquatic, cold-blooded, gill-having, vertebrates that contemporary biologists today call “fish.”  And these are all obvious points with which I have no quarrel.

My quarrel was that this somehow entails that Chaucer was using the word “fish” incorrectly by applying it to whales.

Almost all natural languages develop, for obvious reasons, a word that means “animal,” and also words than mean, roughly, “aquatic animal,” “terrestrial animal,” and “avian or flying animal.”  For example, in Hebrew, these would be dag, behema, and oit, respectively.

In English, these would be roughly “fish,” “beast,” and “bird.”  This is why, incidentally, some English translations of the Hebrew scriptures include bats in a list of “birds.” Because the word is actually oit and oit means “flying animal,” and bats certainly are appropriately put on a list of flying animals.  Anyone thinking that there is some sort of classification error here, because “bats aren’t birds” is a bit dim, apparently thinking that “bird” has one and only one meaning, inscribed in some Platonic heaven of English Word Meanings or that, somehow, “animals that can fly” is not a real category that is really true of some animals and not others. (In the American South, where I have lived, mosquitos are sometimes called “birds” for instance. And in British English, a woman is “a bird.”  Weird, right? How the British call chicks “birds”?)

The point here, of course, is that “aquatic animals” is a perfectly reasonable categorization, and the word “fish” does that work nicely.  If, as has happened, a certain community, say of biologists, want to change the meaning of the word to mean only “aquatic animals that are cold-blooded, gill-having vertebrates,” they may certainly do so.  But while such a reclassification of animals and a redefinition of a word may be useful, there  is no sense in saying that it is RIGHT and that the old use was WRONG.

One can invite a person to accept the new definition and to start using the word the new way and stop using the old way, but one cannot MAKE people do this, especially not on the grounds that the old—and therefore established by actual usage—way of using a word is WRONG.  This is absurd.  There is simply no court of appeal concerning the RIGHT or WRONG usage of words BESIDES actual usage.

Lexicographers know this.  When one writes a dictionary, one looks at all the meanings the a given word actually has in usage (as well as those it formerly had, if one is being thorough) and then writes them down.  That’s all.  Dictionaries are RECORDS OF USAGE, and nothing else.

Take, for example, the word “lit”, used as an adjective. What does it mean to call something “lit”?

As an academic, I have free access to the O.E.D., so here it is


So, “lit” means either “illuminated” or “intoxicated.” Note that the meaning of “drunk” or “intoxicated” started only around 1914.  Wouldn’t someone be a bit of an idiot to go around screaming that “lit” DOESN’T MEAN “intoxicated”, that THIS USAGE IS WRONG, that it means ONLY “illuminated” and that everyone has to STOP USING THE WORD TO MEAN “intoxicated”?  A similar or the same idiot might do the same thing with the word “gay,” screaming himself hoarse about how the word “gay” doesn’t MEAN “homosexual” but “merry” and that anyone using the word “gay” to mean “homosexual” is USING THE WORD WRONG.

Of course, the O.E.D, stodgy and British as it is, is behind the times.  “Lit” has been extended past “intoxicated,” (although it still means that ) to meaning something like “really cool” or “fucking amazing.” But let’s go to the Urban Dictionary, which has the advantage of being “real time”: of the top 4 definitions of “lit”, two are “intoxicated” and here are the other two:



There we go. If something is “fucking amazing in any sense” you can call it “lit.”

Those of my generation will remember “radical” and “rad.” Go back a bit and you’ll find “groovy.” Those of my parent’s generation will remember “cool” (which is still with us).  Before that, “hip,” which has made a semi-comeback in term “hipster.”

Pretty much every generation has several words that mean this.  Sometimes the word lasts, sometimes it doesn’t.

The 1920’s gave us “nifty”, “swell,” and “Jake” for awesome. “Jake” seems gone. “Nifty” is still around, but seems much weaker. (I don’t think something merely “nifty” would count today as “lit”).

The 1920’s also gave us “knocked up” as a term for “pregnant,” so that we Americans now usually laugh when we read in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the sentence

The first division of their journey occupied a long day, and brought them, almost knocked up, to Oxford.

In British English, “knocked up” means “exhausted” not “pregnant.” I think it morphed into the slang term “knackered,” but I’m not 100% on that one.

Then there is my other favorite sentence of this kind from Jane Austen.  In Emma, we read

To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her.

“Making violent love to her”? WTF? Does Jane Austen have RAPE SCENE? No, obviously not. “Violently” here means “with great passion” and “make love” means “profess his feelings for her.”

The point of all these is the same: “knocked up” can mean either “pregnant” or “exhausted.” There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.  “Make love” can mean “have sex” or it can mean “express one’s feelings of love.”  There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.  “Lit” can mean “illuminated,” “on fire,” “intoxicated” or “fucking amazing.” There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.


Naturally this goes for the word “fish” as well, or “fissh” as the case may be.  There is simply no logical path from

(1) Some or most people today use this word to mean X.

(2) Therefore, anyone who ever did or does use the word to mean Y is WRONG.

The most “wrong” can ever mean in the context of usage is “unconventional,” and if the conventions change, if the new use catches on, it won’t be “wrong” even in that sense.  No one (to my knowledge) still uses the word “gay” to mean “merry” except in some fixed phrases in hold songs like “we’ll have a gay old time.”  “Gay” means either “homosexual” or “a male homosexual” (knock yourself out if you want to argue over whether or not lesbians are “gay”) or “lame.”  Of course, the PC police go into ecstasies of indignation at anyone who uses the word “gay” to mean “lame” or “something that sucks,” but PC speech police can go fuck themselves.

And the same applies to Sperg language police, as I shall call these autistic morons who believe in PLATONIC WORD HEAVEN were words have only ONE TRUE MEANING (which is always the meaning they like, somehow, just like the PC speech police).   They can also go fuck themselves, as far as I’m concerned.

If they want to fuck off somewhere they might learn something about language, I suggest reading section one of Scott Alexander’s THE CATEGORIES WERE MADE FOR MAN, NOT MAN FOR THE CATEGORIES.  If they don’t want to learn anything, it makes no difference to me, so long as they do fuck off.



3 comments on “Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself

  1. philo says:

    Is… is that really saying go fuck yourself? lmao I’ll need to remember this.


  2. Rob Flammang says:

    Mark Shea always said, “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” In your case, you found a linguistic fundamentalist. It can’t have been a pleasant experience; I’ve run up against these one-true-convention types myself. As usual, the more inconsequential the issue, the more fanatically it is defended. They have some very strong anxiety related to being wrong about this-or-such particular hobby horse. I guess they have an awful lot riding on that-or-such particular horse…


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