Despite the 935,000 Google hits for “slap with a wet fish,” I was not aware that it was such a common expression. I was vaguely aware of the delightful Monty Python skit, the “fish-slapping dance,” but as an icon of disdain and insult, “fish in face” had kind of slipped below my radar —or sonar, I suppose. The expression is still not as common in English as it is in Italian. To treat someone “a pesci in faccia” (fishes in the face) is a very common figure of speech in Italian, meaning to treat rudely; there is even a 2004 Lina Wertmuller film, Peperoni ripieni e pesci in faccia (Stuffed Peppers and Fish in the Face) with F. Murray Abraham and Sophia Loren.
My etymological swamis tell me that It Started in Naples approximately 2,000 years before the film of that name with Clark Gable and Sophia Loren came out, a film actually set on the island of Capri, as was the original fish-in-face episode, so maybe there is some fishy connection —but I doubt it.
Much of what we say we know
about Tiberius comes to us from De vita Caesarum,
generally known in English as The Lives of the Twelve
Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
(ca.70—ca.130), or, simply, Suetonius. It includes The
Life of Tiberius; a widely used translation (below)
in English is by John Carew Rolfe and was published in the
Loeb Classical Library in 1913. According to Suetonius,
Tiberius was so cruel that the episode upon which the
fish-in-face expression is presumably based seems
light-hearted by comparison. So:
Put yourself forward in time again to, oh, 1982, when one slightly deranged, but harmless, Michael Fagan, scaled the walls around Buckingham Palace, shinnied up the drain-pipe to Queen Elizabeth II’s private apartments, and made his way into her bedroom (!), totally by-passing the queen’s security personnel. Intruder and Majesty had a nice ten-minute chat before the queen, under the guise of calling for a cigarette for the young gentleman, managed to tip off the guards, who came and escorted Michael out. If memory serves, no charges were pressed against him. No harm, no foul.
A few days after he [Tiberius] reached Capreae and was by himself, a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet; whereupon in his alarm that the man had clambered up to him from the back of the island over rough and pathless rocks, he had the poor fellow's face scrubbed with the fish. And because in the midst of his torture the man thanked his stars that he had not given the emperor an enormous crab that he had caught, Tiberius had his face torn with the crab also.
But the queen was (and remains) a nice lady.
On the other hand, sneaking in to see tyrants is
probably not a good idea. (I mean, would you sneak into
Stalin’s bedroom and offer him a fish? Or even a bottle
of vodka?) Imagine how nuts you would have to be to
climb up the cliffs on Capri carrying the day’s catch.
(I have done that, by the way. OK, I had the help of a
cable-car and some nice steps, and I wasn’t bearing
fish, but I did have a knap-sack). How nuts are you to
climb up there to Tiberius’ villa to give a gift to an
emperor everyone knew to be a homicidal maniac. “Hey,
majesty! Here, have a fish!” What did he expect? And
then to mouth off to the guards? — “Say, I’m sure glad I
didn’t show him that huge crab.” Ho-ho. A real Grouchus
Marxus. (At the very least, he deserved to be knocked
over with a wet noodle, but that’s an expression for