Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I've heard the phrase so many times, but only now am wondering where it comes from.

I know it is used to mean that someone has been tricked, or has in some way fallen for a trap.

e.g.

Bob: So I ended up buying the volcano insurance from the salesman in the end.

Geoff: Wow! He stitched you up like a kipper.

But what on earth have "kippers" got to do with anything?

share|improve this question
2  
    
Is that anything like "revved up like a deuce"? –  Mark Beadles Mar 6 '12 at 18:28
    
@Mark I've never heard of that one, so I can't say. –  Urbycoz Mar 7 '12 at 9:07
2  
Cute! It's a lyric from one of the most misheard songs of all time. (Blinded by the Light [1976] by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, written by Bruce Springsteen). –  JLG Mar 7 '12 at 20:02

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think it's a mixture of similes. He may have stitched you up, or he may equally have done you. In the latter case, he may have done you brown (like a piece of meat is well done) or done you like a kipper (even more so, since kippers are done, or smoked, for many hours). Combining the two is a jocular turn of phrase (like without a paddle to stand on) that is easily picked up by people looking for a strong or picturesque phrase without worrying much about its origins.

Edit: I notice (e.g. here) that done up like a kipper is also widely used. The problem with criminal argot of this era is "Minder", and the Godfather Effect; it is probably impossible now to disentangle which phrases were in use in the 70s/80s and picked up by the scriptwriters, and which were invented for effect by the scriptwriters, and picked up by the wide boys of South London or Essex.

share|improve this answer
1  
"Without a paddle to stand on" is great. I'm going to have to start using it! –  ruakh Mar 6 '12 at 19:36

I'm not convinced it's a "mixture of similes". I can't find any relevant references to like a kipper prior to about 1970, and I think when it did come in about then, it started as South London slang.

So I'm inclined to credit the explanation given here, that it's a reference to the the extra wide tie called the 'kipper' that became popular around then. Thus called partly because the original designer was Michael Fish, and partly because of the tie's shape.

On the metaphorical allusion to kippers the foodstuff, I'd note that they're pretty unrecognisable as "fish" once they've been split and smoked. They've been well and truly done over.

Also note that to have a stitch on someone was (now obsolete) British slang for to bear a grudge. Which is probably where the later slang stitch someone up came from (it means to "frame" someone - falsely make it appear they're guilty).

OP's more general definition (to trick someone) is increasingly common lately, but I think with or without "kipper", most usages still relate to being (usually falsely) made to appear guilty.

share|improve this answer
1  
You really trust someone named Fish to’ve designed a kipper? 😈 –  tchrist Mar 6 '12 at 21:03
1  
@tchrist: I'd certainly trust him more than the other Michael Fish who told us not to worry about a possible hurricane that night. Well, he didn't tell me, 'cos I was flying back from Greece in the wee small hours - it was quite mind-boggling to look out of the plane window and see the devastation across Southern England following the Great Storm of 1987. –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 21:51
    
Tell me about it. I was in Banbury when the hurricane hit, and had to catch a flight out of Heathrow the next day, and of course nothing was running. Hired a private car with a nervy driver, who weaved in and around all the fallen trees on the motorway. Crazy. –  tchrist Mar 6 '12 at 21:55
    
@tchrist: It's been said many times that Fish's "error" probably saved many lives - because people thought there was nothing to worry about, they went to bed instead of going outside and trying to "secure" things on their property. Which would almost certainly have meant many of them being overcome by a force of nature such as they could never have imagined. Me, I had fun learning to operate a chain saw in the days that followed, and I always had plenty of rustic tree-trunk seats for the garden after that! –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 22:04

My mate cockney Mick is proper old skool, he used to say" he done me up a kipper"/ I asked him what it meant and he said in the old days they used to gut fish and stitch em back together again, so basically it meant you'd been stitched up. We used to play all sorts of pranks on each other at work an he'd always come out with that phrase when we'd "stitched him up".

share|improve this answer
    
+1 Interestingly put. Informative, if only you could add some chrono and some reference data. –  Kris Oct 14 '12 at 11:03

Fish are gutted then spit into two parts lengthways, before smoking. The two parts are packaged together for sale. In Britain, between the wars, seamstresses were in demand and frequently moved to new employers. It was unusual for them to move without their friend, so seamstresses usually came in pairs and were referred to as kippers. Seamstresses stitch. ‘Stitched like a kipper’ is a whimsical development of ‘stitched up’. I am unable to verify the explanation. It is dredged from the banks of my mind.

share|improve this answer

Stitched up means framed, put in the bag and stitched up so tight so you can't get out of the bag or the frame. It's not just that someone framed you, but it's a tight frame and you're trapped with no way out.

Kippers are usually opened up, not just gutted like most fish. So you are not only fooled, but you are opened up and made vulnerable.

share|improve this answer

To stitch up is similar to snitch but with false information.

As for the kipper; it could be metaphorical; or what about, "to be stitched up like Yom Kippur" ;)

share|improve this answer
    
Welcome to ELU.SE. Please take a moment to find upvoted answers to see the type of answer this site is looking for. We also provide help on answering questions. Answers should ideally include some sort of independent corroboration, correctly referenced. The reference to Yom Kippur appears to be completely irrelevant. –  Andrew Leach Jul 19 at 17:37

Chiming in on the "stitched up" phrase here - I believe "Stitched up" as a phrase on its own means that you've been found out or discovered trying to get away with something - and originates from navy sailing ships. Or so I was told by an enthusiastic tour guide on HMS Victory. A sailor would be buried at sea by being sewn into the hammock he slept in, and thrown overboard. Sometimes sailors would try to jump ship by faking death and taking their chances in the sea. But traditionally the final stitch is put through the corpses nose. (Apparently because this was once done by accident and the "corpse" sat up, and turned out to be a sailor who had gone into a catatonic coma - but perhaps it was done to prevent deserters?) Thus if you were faking it and alive, you'd be "stitched up" by the final stitch going through your nose and presumably giving the game away...! "Sewn up" is also a (rarely used) term for being drunk (meaning you're so useless you might as well be sewn into your hammock and thrown into the sea). I imagine neither of those have anything to do with Kippers....

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.