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I have looked at the meaning of fishwife at Collins Language (I can't link directly to the definition) and it tells me:

fishwife n (pl -wives) a coarse or bad-tempered woman with a loud voice

Other places I've looked say similar things, with the additional definition of

a woman who sells fish.

Which I'm guessing is the original meaning.

But I can't make the jump from someone who sells fish to someone who is mean, bad tempered, speaks bad language and is loud.

Looking at Etymonline only yields

from fish + wife in the woman sense.

Which is nice, but not helpful here.

Why are fishwives mean?

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2  
This article about Fishmongers might be of interest. –  KitFox Jul 29 '11 at 17:27
    
@Kit Very much so, thanks! –  Matt Эллен Jul 29 '11 at 17:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The definition of a fishwife is tied to both of the definitions you listed. Wikipedia's article on the fishwife explains that:

A fishwife or fish fag is a woman who sells fish.... Fish women were notoriously loud and foul-mouthed as in the expression, To swear like a fishwife. One reason for their outspokenness is that their wares were highly perishable and so lost value if not sold quickly.

Unlike its common usage today, wife meant any woman, not just a married one. Some words still retain this meaning:

This usage stems from Old English wif (woman) and is akin to the German weib, also meaning "woman". This sense of the word is still used in Modern English in constructions such as midwife and old wives' tale.

So historically, a fishwife was just a woman who sold fish. Over time, since fishwives were often "loud and foul-mouthed," their job title became synonymous with your definition of "a bad-tempered woman with a loud voice."

Interestingly, fishwives have had different reputations in different areas. In Billingsgate, there were "the wives of Billingsgate" who:

dressed in strong 'stuff' gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one indistinguishable mass upon their heads. ... They smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin and were known for their colourful language.

On the other hand, the fishwives of Newhaven, Scotland were:

noted for their beauty and industry, and celebrated by royalty.

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Thanks for the edits, @Kit –  simchona Jul 29 '11 at 17:51
    
I would have thought that the fishwife was the spouse of the fishmonger. –  The Raven Jul 29 '11 at 18:01
    
@The Raven: Actually, a fishwife is the female form of fishmonger –  simchona Jul 29 '11 at 18:04
1  
@The Raven, wife originally just meant woman. Goodwif is dialect for women –  mgb Jul 29 '11 at 20:42

Handling fish is a tough, dirty job. It is not considered appropriate for a "lady." And that holds, even among the class of women who would normally be housekeepers, waitresses, etc., where public relations skills are of some importance.

As a result, fishwives, (or fisherwomen), are smellier, louder, and rougher and coarser in their manners than the other types of women described above. That translates into "meanness" in the "rude" or "low" sense of the word, including a certain amount of unpleasantness.

That doesn't necessarily make them "mean" in the bad-hearted sense of the word. Some "coarse" people I know actually have hearts of gold. But fishwives usually have exteriors that may lead people to see them (perhaps wrongly) as "mean."

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1  
Thanks, and +1! I don't suppose you have a reference that shows working class women being disparaging towards women who sell fish? –  Matt Эллен Jul 29 '11 at 17:26
    
@matt: Not really. Just friends of my 88-year old mother. –  Tom Au Jul 29 '11 at 21:34
    
That's good enough for me :) –  Matt Эллен Jul 31 '11 at 13:44

My mother had an illustrated book of folk tales when I was young. "The Fishmonger's Wife" was a tale not of a woman that sold fish, but a woman married to a Fishmonger, who didn't make a lot of money plying his trade. The wife's mean reputation came as she was always complaining about not having any of the finer things in life. Meanwhile, the Fishmonger was a long suffering, hard working man doing the best he could. Thus, the "fishwife" legend was begun - a woman not satisfied with a loving, hard working husband whom could not provide in the manner to which she desired, becoming resentful and haranguing to the point of........ I don't remember the ending, but I know she got her just desserts.

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I have known the term fishwife for 60 plus years.It's been a long time since the archaic meaning to fishwife ie: "selling fish" was used in general conversation. I was born Jewish. I grew up with a eclectic group of friends, of which some were Jewish. Others were Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddist or Suni etc. In my professsion (I am a musician ) my friends know the expression fishwife. In jazz clubs, or symphony halls the meaning seems to be inferred mostly as a loud, often obnoxious, somewhat greedy woman.

The woman may be educated and kind. She can wear her heart on her sleeve easily. The woman doesn't have to be Jewish. If Jewish, often she comes from a family steeped in the norms of the schetyl. She won't know she is being a fishwife. I have met many women whom fit the description. Many men also.

A good portrayal of what I believe the term "fishwife" means to most people is the mother and father of George Costanza in the Seinfeld television sitcoms.

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Welcome to EL&U. Your answer would be improved if you could provide references or examples from written sources, with any suitable links. I also encourage you to peruse the help center for additional guidance. –  choster Aug 2 at 13:33

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