neither fish nor fowl

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This expression appears to have acquired its current, idiomatic usage in the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was used primarily literally, as illustrated by the following:

  • 1688, Edmund Bohun, A Geographical Dictionary . . . of the Whole World, (Google books preview):
    [T]he Air is clear and gentle, the Earth fruitful both to Grass and Corn, so that it affords plenty of Butter, Cheese, and Cattle, and being well watered with Rivers, wants neither fish nor fowl.
  • 1775, John Hawkesworth (editor), An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, Dublin, p. 156 (Google books preview):
    There is good landing all round the bay. . . . We found a little celery and a few cranberries, but neither fish nor fowl.


neither fish nor fowl

  1. (idiomatic) Something or someone which is not easily categorized; something or someone that does not rightly belong or fit well in a given group or situation.
    • 1885, Charlotte M. Yonge, The Two Sides of the Shield, ch. 18:
      I know I should hate being there without you; I'm a great old thing, as Jasper says, neither fish nor fowl, you know, not come out, and not a little girl in the schoolroom, and it would be very horrid going to a grand place like that on one's own account.
    • 1919, E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Box with Broken Seals, ch. 7:
      "To tell you the truth," he confided, "I am a little tired of my job. Neither fish nor fowl, don't you know."
    • 1993, Jon Pareles, "Arts: Playing in Reunion, Cream Is the Finale Of Rock Ceremonies," New York Times (retrieved 12 Oct 2012):
      Ms. James, who has been a blues, rhythm-and-blues, funk and soul singer, said she no longer had to worry about being "neither fish nor fowl."
    • 2008 Dec. 30, Bob Sommer, "The Education of David Frost," (retrieved 12 Oct 2012):
      “Docudrama” is by its nature a confusing genre—neither fish nor fowl.
      2017 Mar. 18, Tim Farron, "We decided to be fish, because well, the Tories are fowl." Using the expression in an reversed sense in reference to the Liberal Democrats' policy on Europe.


See also[edit]