"Only dead fish go with the flow"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Jul 4 03:37:52 UTC 2009

On Fri, Jul 3, 2009 at 11:21 PM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
> On Fri, Jul 3, 2009 at 11:31 PM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>> Sarah Palin's line "Only dead fish go with the flow" should be in the
>> running for Quote of the Year (along with half a dozen Sanfordisms),
>> though as a "modern proverb" it's not original to her. Google Books
>> suggests it appears in _My Own Alphabet_ by Bobbie Louise Hawkins
>> (1989). Any earlier attestations/variations?
> Answering my own question:  "dead fish go with the stream" precedes "with the
> flow". Proquest and Google Books have several sermonic examples from the 19th
> century, going back to 1830:
> "Dead fish go _with_ the stream, _live_ ones go _against_ it."
> Thomas Whittemore, "Reply to Dr. Ely," _Trumpet and Universalist Magazine_,
> May 22, 1830, p. 186, col. 3

Earlier still, from 1826, in _The Catholic Miscellany and Monthly Repository of
Information_, vol. 6, p. 71 (snippet view on Google Books):

"The Rev. Mr. Daly, of Powerscourt, a bible crusader of some celebrity, and who
prefers an itinerant mode of life, to the quiet, unostentatious discharge of
his pastoral duties at home, reminded his hearers of an old saying, that 'live
fish swim against the stream, while dead ones float with it.'"

> Looks like an old preacher's saying got updated in the mid/late 20th century
> under the influence of the colloquialism "go with the flow" (dated by OED2 to
> 1956).
> --Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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