What does "a fish on a stick" mean?
August 25, 2013 6:44 PM   Subscribe

Everyone's talking about "waving a fish on a stick" - but no-one can explain what it means or where it comes from. Can you?

Some of my colleagues use the saying "a fish on a stick" or "waving a fish on a stick". It seems to be a vague shorthand for "it's the process that's important, not the result" or perhaps "we need to be seen to actually achieving things, not just making irrelevant gestures".

When asked, no-one's been able to tell me what the saying/proverb actually means, only that "It's something that [departed colleague] used to say, I'm not sure what he meant by it though".

Has anyone else heard of "the fish on the stick" and can you tell me what it means? If it helps, the departed colleague with whom the saying oringinated was British and had spent a long time in the navy.
posted by girlgenius to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have never heard this before, but the context you give makes me think it might be related to "give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime." At the end of the day, the man has a fish, but it's the process that's important.

I suppose that the hypothetical fish could be on a stick.
posted by phunniemee at 6:52 PM on August 25, 2013

From google, there is a similar phrase regarding fishing. It's probably that, but mixed up somehow.

"Waving a stick at a fish"

Which would make sense, a big part of fishing is just fishing (preparing to, executing, etc.)- not necessarily catching anything.
posted by thylacine at 6:52 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thylacine, Google's telling me it has no results for "waving a stick at a fish" - do you have a link to a specific page?
posted by girlgenius at 6:55 PM on August 25, 2013

Best answer: "waving a stick at fish" works. There is a book called "Standing in a river waving a stick." A fishing blog named that, and others. Makes sense to me. You might find out if he was a fisherman to provide more confidence in the answer.
posted by thylacine at 7:01 PM on August 25, 2013

The book referenced.
posted by rtha at 7:02 PM on August 25, 2013

I think thylacine likely has nailed it, considering how much of fishing is just... well... process (you can have a fun day fishing without catching any fish), which fits the "it's the process that's important, not the result" aspect so well.
posted by edgeways at 8:17 PM on August 25, 2013

It would be helpful if you could give us a sentence in which your colleagues have used the phrase. Can you remember any?
posted by Unified Theory at 8:32 PM on August 25, 2013

Could it be related to Japan's setsubun holiday? One of the customs associated with it is to take a fish head and stick it on the end of a branch to ward off evil. There's a photo of it on the page even though that article doesn't talk about it.
posted by vincele at 8:34 PM on August 25, 2013

I know the phrase "waving a dead chicken", which refers to the pointless, stupid, meaningless last action you have to take, just so that you can say, with confidence, "we tried everything".
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:35 PM on August 25, 2013

Response by poster: I think "waving a stick at fish" works best for the context where it gets used most. I guess it was mis-heard at somepoint and became "a fish on a stick"

thanks everyone!
posted by girlgenius at 10:33 PM on August 25, 2013

I think 'fish on a stick' is cooler, and I'm going to start using it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:12 AM on August 26, 2013

Here's a comic strip about a man waving a fish on a stick. You might be able to draw some business inference from it. Seems closer than the waving a stick at a fish ideas.
posted by Ery at 4:49 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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