1

I have been searching for the origin of the phrase "fish for a compliment", but I couldn't find anything on the internet. Goose egg!

The Free Dictionary defines the idiom

fish for compliments
To attempt to elicit praise from someone, typically by saying negative things about oneself.

  • We know you're a smart kind, Dan. You don't need to fish for compliments by talking about the one C you got.
1
  • 2
    You might find that "fishing for a compliment" gives you a better idea. Jan 21, 2023 at 13:18

3 Answers 3

6

OED provides, for the verb fish, a number of definitions, this is the relevant one:

3.a. To use artifice to obtain a thing, elicit an opinion, etc. Const. after, for. to fish for a compliment; also absol.

and in the quotations below this definition the earliest usage of fish in this sense is dated 1570, and somewhat later

1803 Lett. Miss Riversdale I. 264 I feared he would think I was fishing for a compliment.

10
  • You didn't provide a link, but you seem to be citing the full OED. Which is subscription-only - otherwise I'd have voted to close the question for lack of prior research. Jan 21, 2023 at 13:54
  • 1
    (Why on earth would anyone downvote this answer?) Jan 21, 2023 at 14:04
  • Yes, I'm citing the full OED, and yes, I know that it (the online edition which I am quoting from) is subscription only. And no, I haven't read the full Ts and Cs so am relying on 'fair use' and internet-anonymity to avoid Oxford University Press's black helicopters renditioning me to the dungeons below the Bodleian ... Jan 21, 2023 at 14:34
  • I assume most people who try to follow the link in my first comment will hit the paywall (but I think the full OED offers unrestricted access on an "unannounced" day about once a month). I seriously doubt OED would take us (or Stack Exchange) to task for reproducing some of their definitions here -- especially if they're attributed. But unless we can easily locate the same information freely accessible online, we certainly can't expect the OP to find it for himself. Jan 21, 2023 at 16:00
  • A link might be useful for those who do have a subscription (with an explantory note for non-subscribers). Jan 21, 2023 at 17:14
2

A Google Books search turns up several matches for the phrase from the 1700s. From a letter from J.S.H. to William Shenstone, dated March 16, 1754, reprinted in Select Letters Between the Late Duchess of Somerset, Lady Luxborough, Mr. Whistler, Milss Dolman, Mr. R. Dodsley, William Shenstone, Esq. and Others volume 1 (1778):

Am I not so very vain to think you can so very easily forgive me; I fear you will have more Reason to find Fault with me in the Country, when I shall be so much nearer to you then than I am now. I do not fish for a Compliment, when I say, I have many dark Spots for a few white ones: but I flatter myself, you will have the Goodness to bear with my Foibles, more than any body else.

From James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, volume 2 (1791):

Johnson had a general aversion to pun, He once, however, endured one of mine. When we were talking of a numerous company in which he had distinguished himself highly, I said, "Sir, you were a Cod surrounded by smelts. Is not this enough for you? at a time too when you were not fishing for a compliment?" He laughed at this with a complacent approbation. Old Mr. Sheridan observed, upon my mentioning it to him, "He liked your compliment so well he was willing to take it with pun sauce."

From "Gleanings of Biography: Memorandums of Thomson the Poet and His Associates, Communicated by Mr. Robertson of Richmond in Surrey, Late Surgeon to the Houshold at Kew, October 17th, 1791," in The Bee, Or, Literary Weekly Intelligencer (December 28, 1791):

Q. Then, Sir, I suspect you are the only one who could not make the discovery?—Sir , I was not fishing for a compliment I assure you.

A. If you had, Sir, I should not have snatched so eagerly at your bait.

From "Gray the Poet,—A Dialogue Concerning Youth," in The Bee: Or Literary Weekly Intelligencer (October 2, 1793):

West. How delightful is this vernal day and sweet retirement on the banks of the imperial Thames ; ... I imagine Gray, by tuning his pipe to it so often, has been assimulated to it, as we generally are to what we admire.

Walpole. Sentimental young rogue : I see what kind of sport you are thinking of on the margin of this river. You are fishing for a compliment in immortal verse from Gray, when he shall have finished his apprenticeship to the muse on the Thames, and set up in business for him self.

From Miss Hutchinson, Exhibitions of the Heart; a Novel, volume 3 (1799):

"It would be a difficult task for me to think so, madam," exclaimed captain Osnaburgh, "especially when I look round this table."---"I swear, Osnaburgh," said Melcourt, "you are grown quite gallant, since I saw you last,” observing whether Matilda's eyes were fixed on the strangers--"you are fishing for compliments, I protest," continued Melcourt, who, with all the vivacity of one who laughs at the past and thinks only on the present moment, entertained the company with a thousand sallies of wit and humour ; ...

And from Harriet Pigott, Emily Dundorne; or, The Effects of Early Impressions, volume 3 (1799):

The principal accomplishments to be obtained, were dancing and the French language. They should be paid liberally, he said, for their apartments and table: at the same time, that he should be sorry to occupy any apartments that might in any other way bring more to the family: thus fishing for a compliment to his fortune.

The upshot of these various examples is that English speakers and writers were using the expression "fish for a compliment" (and its variants) in the same sense in which the expression is used today at least as early 1754, and that its use appears to have become more widespread starting in the 1790s.

1

Actually it's quite an old idiomatic expression, apparently originated from US campus:

fish v.1 [? SE fish for compliments]
1. (US campus) to toady, to ingratiate oneself.

1774 T. Hutchinson Diary I 261: He courts me a good deal, and fishes [DA].

1795 will of Charle Prentiss in Hall (1856) 200: I give to those that fish for parts, / Long sleepless nights, and aching hearts.

(Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

SE: Standard English

11
  • "apparently originated from US campus"? That's ridiculous! Jan 21, 2023 at 13:58
  • @FumbleFingers - see you saying that Green’s Dictionary is a ridiculous source?
    – Gio
    Jan 21, 2023 at 14:00
  • 1
    Green's dictionary seems to be saying that the lone word "fish" in the given sense is a "US campus" usage, but the question is about the longer phrase "fish for compliments," which Green doesn't describe. (For posterity, the notation "[? SE fish for compliments]" seems to mean "etymology: maybe from the standard English 'fish for compliments.'") Jan 21, 2023 at 14:12
  • 4
    But the question wasn't "What's the origin of the word 'fish' in the sense of 'toady, fish for compliments'"; the question was "What's the origin of the idiom 'fish for a compliment'?" That's a totally different question with a totally different answer. Jan 21, 2023 at 14:25
  • 1
    @TannerSwett the quotations support the answer, as I understand it, the examples show the figurative and metaphotical meaning of "fish" when a speaker tricks or baits someone in order to receive praise.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 22, 2023 at 9:52

Your Answer

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

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