What's the origin of "price of fish"?


I heard an old song by Scooter where he sings "How much is the fish?", realizing that it sounds so irrelevant and stupid that it might be something idiomatic with it.

Turns out it's an expression implying that the previous statement is hitting off-bounds from the current topic. Great - I learned something new.

Then, I got nerdy and wanted to learn where that expression originates from, as I was hoping for an interesting story behind it. However, I got jack when I googled it.

Anybody knows about the etymology of the expression and what it's referring?

Konrad Viltersten

Posted 2019-10-01T13:38:46.447

Reputation: 3 851



I'm not familiar with the song you refer to, so I looked up the lyrics:

I want you back for the rhythm-attack
Coming down on the floor like a maniac
I want you back, so clean up the dish
By the way, how much is the fish?
How much is the fish?

I wouldn't necessarily assume that the lyric "how much is the fish" directly relates to the English expression "what's that got to do with the price of fish", for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the expression you refer to isn't always fish. I've heard it used with eggs, rice (perhaps because it rhymes with 'price'), and tea in China.

Secondly, the reason for using any of the above expressions beginning with "what's that got to do with the price of..." is said as a response to suggest that a statement made by someone else is a non sequitur, or irrelevant to the matter at hand. It is not said to make a discussion irrelevant. The Scooter lyrics do not appear to be in the form of a discussion, rather they seem all to be in the first person.

Lastly, although I think the lyric is probably just meant to be an aberration, representing a shift in thought, as if the person is distracted, if it is meant to relate to a popular saying there are probably more relevant cultural references, such as the saying "try the fish", which is sometimes tagged onto the end of a monologue to suggest the speaking style of a stand-up comedian who may be contractually obliged to recommend the special dish at the venue he is performing at. As stated, I don't think that is the case.


Posted 2019-10-01T13:38:46.447

Reputation: 41 381


For me (UK-based), the idiomatic standard is...

What's that got to do with the price of eggs? (TheFreeDictionary)
A rhetorical question calling attention to a non-sequitur or irrelevant statement or suggestion made by another person. Primarily heard in US. (boldface mine)

...despite the fact that the very same dictionary defines...

What's that got to do with the price of fish?
A rhetorical question calling attention to a non-sequitur or irrelevant statement or suggestion made by another person. Primarily heard in UK.

Obviously the specific "thing with a price" being referenced has no particular significance, so I wouldn't take too much notice of that supposed UK/US distinction (which doesn't accord with my experience anyway). Have a look at the results from this Google Books search...

What's that got to do with the price of...

...where I've specifically excluded all matches where the next word is eggs or fish. The first four matches there are for the price of air in Kansas, the price of tea in China, the price of corn, the price of bambinos in Nairobi.

The format of the utterance is somewhat self-referential, in that the speaker calls attention to some preceding non-sequitor by introducing another one. And the fact that the "new" non-sequitor may not even be a familiar concept (speaker just makes up a "nonce-term") effectively makes the usage more "strikingly emphatic".

Probably the best way to "understand" this usage is to interpret it as What you said is just as irrelevant to the conversation as is something obviously irrelevant (such as the price of something none of us know or care about). But I see no point in trying to identify a "first recorded use" for something like this - it'll probably be long lost in the mists of time.

And since Scooter is a German band (not even native speakers of AmE or BrE), the claimed US/UK distinction is also fairly irrelevant here.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2019-10-01T13:38:46.447

Reputation: 52 587

I was hoping that the expression had an anecdotic background akin and Bob's your uncle but i realize that anything can be inserted as long as it's a commonly purchased item in the cultural reference. Well, too bad. As a side note for Scooter being German - while true as his origin, I believe he'd count as Brittish'ish English speaker as he's studied and lived there, hardly even visiting US, as far I'm informed. – Konrad Viltersten – 2019-10-01T20:00:49.010