Where on earth do such expressions come from? I can’t answer that, but at least we can now sleuth out the evolution of the word mackerel itself, thanks to some crack detective work by Jim Gleick in his new book The Information (see the NYT review here). According to Robert Krulwich and Josh Kurz at NPR, the Oxford English Dictionary has identified no fewer than 31 names for the fish. And here they are (drum roll please):
mackerel, macquerel, mackarell, makrall, macrill, mackril,macril, makarell, mackreel, makreill, maycril, maquerel, maccarel,mackrel, makrell, macrell, makral, mackerell, macrel, mackaral, makerell, macquerell, mackrell, makrel, makerelle, makerel, macrelle, makyrelle, makcaral, mackarel, mackeril
How many cans is that? See the stack at right!
Turns out the word is traceable to the old French word “maquerel” and entered the English lexicon around 1066 when the Normans stormed across the channel and whomped the Brits in 1066. In hist study of the evolution of information Gleick notes that the OED listed only 19 different spellings for mackerel in 1989, whereas it has risen rapidly to 31 now.Why?
A major reason is that the internet has allowed the dusting off of all kinds of ancient documents, which have been scanned and distributed to the masses. Since there were no dictionaries back in the day (say, a thousand years ago, give or take ), people just spelled words any which way they wanted to. People who could read and write, that is, which was a small fraction of the populace in those benighted times. Hence the irrational exuberance of spellings of mackerel.
Where will it all end? Below is Krulwich and Kurz’s prediction, tongue-in-cheek one presumes, for the future of mackerel. They were referring mainly to the spelling, but it’s an interesting (perhaps subliminal) comment on what physical form the fish may take in the future as well. Perish the thought.