I am reading translated version of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and I am not sure about the meaning of funny fish. It was translated to my mother language as a tricky thing.

I know that if something is fishy it means that it is not so good. It might be then that the translation of funny fish is following the same roots. Is that so?

Could someone explain the meaning and more importantly the etymology background of "funny fish"?

The text from the book goes like that

Mr Butt managed to make the Mail Coach go even faster. ' "Need to stop?" ' he bellowed over his shoulder. ' "Need to go so quickly?" Well, my sirs, I'll tell you this: Need's a slippery snake, that's what it is. The boy here says that you,sir, Need A View Before Sunset, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And some might say that the boy here Needs A Mother, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And it's been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort Of Thrill. O, Need's a funny fish: it makes people untruthful. They all suffer from it, but they will not always admit.

  • 6
    Calling someone a 'queer fish' is an old-fashioned British colloquialism meaning a strange or eccentric person. It has nothing to do with the more recent use of 'queer' to mean homosexual. My guess is that Rushdie substituted 'funny' for 'queer' to avoid that association of ideas. Mar 20, 2017 at 9:36
  • 1
    but it's not a person here. Or it doesn't matter?
    – Radek
    Mar 20, 2017 at 9:41
  • @Kate I don't think that Need in this case is a person. Rushdie is just using rather unusual capitalisation.
    – Mick
    Mar 20, 2017 at 9:41
  • Please do not use blue monospaced computer code formatting for things that should be set in italic. ELU does not have computer code.
    – tchrist
    Mar 20, 2017 at 11:35
  • 1
    Once you have started with a slippery snake, you have no choice but to continue with a funny fish or a similar alliteration. Mar 20, 2017 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


Funny in this case just means strange, or unusual; and, notwithstanding Rushdie's deft use of alliteration, a fish just means a thing, as in "a kettle of fish". So, a funny fish is just a strange thing:

Need's a strange thing: it makes people untruthful.

The use of fish brings to mind Shakespeare's phrase a cold fish, to indicate a heartless person:

it was thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her

A Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scene 4

Also, there is the phrase kettle of fish, where fish refers to some unspecified object. See: Origin of “kettle of fish”.

funny adjective (STRANGE)

strange, surprising, unexpected, or difficult to explain or understand:

The washing machine is making a funny noise again.

Cambridge Dictionary

  • So you think that fish means simply a thing? No more meaning behind it? I'd say that it got bit of negative connotation in this case.
    – Radek
    Mar 20, 2017 at 9:54
  • 1
    @Radek It may come from Shakespeare's use of cold fish to indicate a heartless person (A Winters Tale). Certainly, it has a negative connotation.
    – Mick
    Mar 20, 2017 at 9:57
  • I think I am getting now what I NEED :-D
    – Radek
    Mar 20, 2017 at 10:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

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