A SPRAT TO CATCH A MACKEREL
The meaning and origin of words and phrases related to mackerel
The distinctive pattern on the back of mackerel gave rise to the expression a mackerel sky. First recorded in the 17th century, the phrase describes a sky with rows of small white fleecy clouds (cirrocumulus or small altocumulus) in a distinctive pattern that is similar to the pattern of black lines on a Mackerel’s back. The name mackerel is from the Old French makerel and first recorded in English around the turn of the 14th century, with that same spelling. It has been recorded since in a wide variety of spellings: makerell, makyrelle, makerelle, macquerell, mackrell, mackrell, mackerell, mackerel, mackarel, mackrel, maycril, mackerel, before being spelt with the modern spelling in the mid 19th century. Its ultimate origin is uncertain.
Holy mackerel! is an exclamation of surprise. Mackerel is used here as a euphemism for Mary or Mother of God. The use of inoffensive words in oaths to avoid blaspheming has a long history, e.g. gosh for God, cripes or crikey for Christ, jeepers or jeez for Jesus. It is thought that the use of mackerel may be a reference to the Catholic consumption of fish on Fridays. It is first recorded as ‘Holy sufferin' mackerel!’ in 1899.
A sprat to catch a mackerel refers to making a small expenditure in the expectation of receiving far greater reward as a result. Dating from the mid 19th century, the idiom relies on the size differential between a sprat and a mackerel. A more extreme version of a sprat to catch a whale is also known.
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