rots from the head" means bad ideas affect the body. This may be the body
politic or body corporate or family. This phrase underscores the importance of
leadership. Who are the decision makers and what drives their decisions? This
is why "transparency"
has become the watch word or our times. In a democracy people should be able to
know on what basis decisions are made. This protects us from head rot.
I am pretty sure that
the first time I heard the term “fish-head” was in Amsterdam in the early nineties when I worked there in
the ship docks. The local hired hands were literally from around the world spoke
a funny mix of English and Dutch. They called each other “fishead” many times a
day. I liked the term for its
inherent originality and its image stuck with me through the years.
I also grew up hearing
the proverb “Fish always rots from the head” Some say that it is of Russian
origin, but according to others it is very old and as universal as one can
The Fish Rots From the Head: The Crisis in
Our Boardrooms: Developing the Crucial Skills of the Competent Director [Paperback]
When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership that is
the root cause.
This proverb is widely stated to have been coined in the late 17th
century. It is claimed to have been used in John Josselyn's An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, which was
published in London in 1674. Having scanned the book, I can't find any citation
of the phrase, or anything like it. Perhaps I need to look again, but I have my
doubts about that attribution.
Whatever the date of origin, many countries lay claim to it. I've
seen sources that place it in China, Russia, Poland, England, Greece and so
on..., but with no evidence of any sort to substantiate those claims.
All of the early examples of the phrase in print prefer the 'a fish
stinks from the head down' variant to 'a fish rots from the head down', which
is more popular nowadays. Those early examples all ignore the nations mentioned
above and credit the term to the Turks. Sir James Porter'sObservations on the religion, law, government,
and manners of the Turks, 1768, includes this:
The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions: they say
"the fish stinks first at the head", meaning, that if the servant is
disorderly, it is because the master is so.
The early date of this citation and the fact Porter was in a
position to be authoritative on the Turkish custom, being as he was British
ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire for 15 years in the
second half of the 18th century, gives Turkey a strong claim to be the
birthplace of this proverb.
Of course, the proverb isn't a lesson in piscine biology. The
phrase appears to have been used in Turkey in a metaphorical rather than
literal sense from the outset. That's just as well as, in reality, it is the
guts of fish that rot and stink before the head.
The way we understand
the meaning of the saying (which coincidentally is apparently biologically
incorrect) is that the inherent cause of the problems eventually experienced by
the whole could be traced back to the head = brain.
We coined the term
fishead as the metaphor that “something” which is wrong with the world we live
in. We knew that would need to look for it in the brain. Thanks to our very
talented friend graphic designer Jan Sabach the term soon got its own brand and
But does the phrase
“The fish rots from the head” hold true in a republic like the United States,
where all citizens have the right to vote?
Not according to
David Groman, a fish pathologist at Atlantic Veterinary College, which is part
of the University of Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Groman may not be the Quincy of fish (he’s not a forensic fish pathologist),
but he does make it his business to know how and why fish die. Which means that
he knows how and why fish rot.
Groman found time
between his fish autopsies to comment on the rotting-fish metaphor. “I don’t
know where that proverb comes from,” says Gromon. “But it’s a poor metaphor.
And, I must say, it’s biologically incorrect. When a fish rots, the organs in
the gut go first. If you can’t tell that a fish is rotting by the smell of it,
you’ll sure know when you cut it open and everything pours out — when all the
internal tissue loses its integrity and turns into liquid.”
of the biological relevance we now have a term or a metaphor and we can begin