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by Misha Votruba

Wiki answers:

"Fish 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 watchword for our times. In a democracy people should be able to know on what basis decisions are made. This protects us from head rot.

Click to find out what "fish rots from the head" means.

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 and 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 imagine.

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's Observations 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 became  < f i s h e a d ( .


... 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?

Consider the following:

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 Groman. "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."

Regardless of the biological relevance we now have a term or a metaphor and we can begin our search.