neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring
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.
- (idiomatic, quasi-adjective) Unsuitable for anyone or anything; unfit for any purpose.
1844 April, Scott, “Rise and Progress of Culinary Literature and Cookery [running head]”, in The Foreign Quarterly Review, volume XXXIII, New York, N.Y.: Published by Leonard Scott & Co. 112 Fulton-Street, page 110:
- The work of Ude is intended for the higher ranks, and for people of fortune. We conceive the book and the cook to have been overrated. It is neither French nor English — neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring. For the rest, Lord Sefton, who was too much of a mere glutton, would have perverted the taste of any cook, however good, who had been long in his service.
1875, Henry James, Roderick Hudson, Boston, Mass.: 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.
1898, E[benezer] Cobham Brewer, “Fish”, in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell, new, revised, corrected, and enlarged edition, Philadelphia, Pa.: Henry Altemus Company [reproduced on Bartleby.com], OCLC 1264697, archived from the original on 5 January 2016:
- 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.
- For more examples of usage of this term, see Citations:neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring.