Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Mackerel

The Easter Holiday is here and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at an old saying and talk about its origins.  Today the term "Holy Mackerel" is meant to describe a feeling of surprise, but its origins are a bit more dubious.

It dates back over two hundred years ago when Catholics were known for gobbling up fish on Fridays, especially during the lent season.  Mackerel was an inexpensive, strong flavored fish favored by poorer Catholics, and so the term "mackerel snapper" was allegedly adopted to poke fun at Catholics and their ritualistic consumption of the fish during the holiday.  Snapper was a derisive term that also meant biter or eater, so putting them together you get mackerel eater.  Holy mackerel developed from this line of thought as a 'softer' euphemism for saying the blasphemous "Holy Mary", much like today when people substitute "gosh darnit" for the more corrosive, similar sounding blasphemous term.    

That's one theory.  Another theory is that the name mackerel is not so innocuous, especially in the French and Dutch languages.  In these languages the name mackerel is closely related to the word for pimp and is often used slangily to describe someone who peddles in the flesh trade.  Old folk lore suggests that male mackerels were responsible for leading the female mackerels to the shore, setting them up for harvest by old school fishermen.  This "shoaling mackerel" theory has since been scientifically rebuked, but one can't help but wonder if the term "holy mackerel" is a tongue-in-cheek euphemism that is not as innocent as one might think.

Either way, this holiday season is always a busy one for seafood vendors.  Historically it was mostly just for "good Catholics", but with all the information available to consumers today about the benefits of eating seafood, you can expect there to be lines at the market counter.  Maybe the religious institutions were on to something way back then.  Today there are so many seafood varieties offered, no one has to be confined to eating only mackerel.   However, when you do get a chance to taste fresh, succulent mackerel, with its moist flesh and delectable flavor, it just might make you want to shout "Holy Mackerel Batman", putting the term in its best light.      

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