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What is the origin of the phrase "kettle of fish"?

e.g.

It's was a good film. But the sequel is a different kettle of fish.

It seems to simply mean "thing", but in a fun and witty way.

But I wonder- Did people ever put fish in kettles, and why would this come to be used in such a way?

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Yes, they did put fish in kettles. Original meaning of kettle is... pot (etymonline). Where else would you stew your favorite fish soup? –  Philoto Oct 26 '11 at 7:48
    
Related, although asking a different question: english.stackexchange.com/q/45794/11762 (interestingly enough I'd never heard "kettle of fish" before asking that question) –  Jim Oct 26 '11 at 16:59
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The phrase means, as you said, 'a different thing.' According to this website:

There was, it seems, a custom by which the gentry on the Scottish border with England would hold a picnic by a river. The custom was described by Thomas Newte in his Tour of England and Scotland in 1785: “It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre, which they call giving ‘a kettle of fish’. Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river ... a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles”.

The way the phrase became an idiom, however, is not clear. Visit that site to read more about possible explanations of the idiom.

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also, here - phrases.org.uk/meanings/kettle-of-fish.html –  Unreason Oct 26 '11 at 8:10
    
‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ tells a similar story. It is silent on ‘a different kettle of fish’, but gives the ‘fête champêtre’ as the possible origin of another expression. ‘The discomfort of this sort of party,’ it speculates, ‘may have led to the phrase “a pretty kettle of fish”, meaning an awkward state of affairs, a mess, a muddle.’ –  Barrie England Oct 26 '11 at 8:11
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If true, this is very sad. Barbecued salmon - pure heaven. Boiled? Truly a different kettle... oh, wait. –  mickeyf Oct 26 '11 at 14:18
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