A pretty kettle of fish

Example in use: “Oh no! John and Susan really don’t get on and they’re working on the same project team now. That’s a pretty kettle of fish! I wonder how they’ll manage that?”

Meaning: an awkward situation or a bit of a mess/muddle

Possible German equivalent: Eine schöne Bescherung

Possible origin: A British English expression and not to be confused with a similar idiom, “a different kettle of fish” which will be explained in weeks to come.

Many people point out that the origin of this idiom appears to come from Scotland where picnics (called fête-champêtre” at that time) would be organised and amongst other things, salmon would be poached in a large, wide saucepan called a kettle. The fish would be taken directly from the river next to the picnic and thrown into the boiling water. Why this should then come to represent a muddle of things is unclear except that maybe if you had a lot of fish in the kettle, then it would look muddled and a bit of a mess. However, it appears that “a kettle of fish” began to be used to mean the state of affairs. After that, different prefixes were used to adjust the meaning!

There are several literary references to a “pretty kettle of fish” in the 1700’s showing us that it had become widely used in English.

In the History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews in 1742, “’Here’s a pretty kettle of fish’, cries Mrs Tow-wouse” or in The History of Tom Jones in 1749, “Find doings at my house! A rare kettle of fish I have discovered at last.” Or even the following, very clear description found in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811, “When a person has perplexed his affairs in general, or any particular business, he is said to have made a find kettle of fish of it.”

With all this confusion about the origin of this one, it’s a pretty kettle of fish, don’t you think?!

pretty / ˈpriti


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.