Fishing in the market

by Gemma Bardsley

by Gemma Bardsley,

Once a general market which probably sprung up in the 13th century, Billingsgate became a fish market in the 17th century.  In Old English, “Billingesgate” refered to the gate of or belonging to the man named Billings, and may have been a gap (gate) in a Roman wall along the river.  Perhaps Billings fished the river and brought his catch up through the gap to hawk it to passersby!  Who knows?

But of what interest is a market to a word nerd?  Well, because the market was once known for the foul, coarse language of the fishmongers who sold their wares in the market, the name of that market has become synonymous with such language.  According to, billingsgate is a noun from:

         1670s, the kind of coarse, abusive language once used by women in the Billingsgate market on the River Thames below London Bridge.

Billingsgate is the market where the fishwomen assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand. [“Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1811]

And in case you think it doesn’t get bandied about any longer, here is a quote I found from a 2008 newspaper article:

“Kitty Warren is articulate when needed but when threatened or challenged, guttersnipe dialect and billingsgate dominate.”
Ted Hadley; Shaw Play Masterfully Tackles Taboo Topics; Buffalo News (New York); Jul 25, 2008

This tendency of the fishwomen of Billingsgate to use such language also gave rise to the word “fishwife,” a coarse, vulgar woman, likely to outswear a sailor!

So the next time you are in the market for fish, do mind your tongue!



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