neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring

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Alternative forms[edit]


The three foods are metonyms for those things suitable to each of medieval society’s classes of people; fish represents the clergy, flesh represents commoners, whilst red herring represents paupers; the three classes are simplistically regarded as exhaustive.


neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring

  1. (idiomatic, quasi-adjective) Unsuitable for anyone or anything; unfit for any purpose.
    • 1875, Henry James, Roderick Hudson, Boston: J. R. Osgood:
      He had frequent fits of melancholy in which he declared that he was neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring. His was neither an irresponsibly contemplative nature nor a sturdily practical one, and he was for ever looking in vain for the uses of the things that please and the charm of the things that sustain.


See also[edit]


  • Fish” listed in Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898 edition)
      It is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl; or Neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring. Not fish (food for the monk), not flesh (food for the people generally), nor yet red herring (food for paupers). Suitable to no class of people; fit for neither one thing nor another.
       ⁂ Fish comes first because in the Middle Ages the clergy took precedence of the laity.
        “She would be a betwixt-and-between…neither fish nor fowl.” — Mrs. Lynn Linton.