The origin of the words "fish" and "chips. By English with STephen

Word Stories: Fish and chips

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode on the origins of the words ‘fish and chips’.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and these podcasts are designed to help you learn English as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I talk about how to learn English. Other times I focus on some of the reasons why English exists the way it is today. In this episode, though, I am going to tell you a word story.

A word story is when I talk about the history of a word. How it started and how it has changed over time. I hope that these stories are interesting and help to give a better understanding of what words can mean and how they are born.

And today’s word story is about the quintessential English meal. Today I am going to talk about the origin of the words ‘fish’ and ‘chips’.

After this…

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Whenever I am giving a class about food, it usually does not take long for one of my students to mention fish and chips. I often think that people only know 3 things about British food. The first is that we all drink tea at 5 pm (we don’t). The second is that our favourite food is fish and chips (it isn’t). The third is that the food is boring (sometimes maybe, but there is also some great British food).

Fish and chips have declined in popularity. It is now actually quite difficult to a chippie (an informal name for a fish and chip shop). The main reason for this is that there are now so many different choices of food from all over the world. In my home city of Birmingham there are Indian restaurants everywhere, but very few chippies.

Mmm, I do miss a good curry!

Anyway, to the origins of the words ‘fish’ and ‘chips’.

First, let’s start with the word ‘fish’.

As we have seen many times in this podcast, ‘fish’ was originally a German word. It probably came to Old English with the Anglo-Saxons when they migrated to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. The interesting thing about ‘fish’ is that originally it meant any animal that lived in the water. This is why we have ‘shellfish’ – an animal that lives in the water in a shell, and ‘starfish’ an animal that lives in the water and is the shape of a star.

Normally, the plural of ‘fish’ is ‘fish’. Again the reason for this is that German had a number of ways of giving plurals to things. Most of them have disappeared in English, but for reasons that are far too complicated to talk about here, the original plural ‘fishe’ in Old English got shortened to just ‘fish’.

Isn’t English great?

Actually, I might do a podcast on plurals in English soon. It will be part of the Reasons for English series that I started recently.

Now, the word ‘chips’ has got lots of different meanings. We have microchips in computers, you use chips instead of money in a casino, you can play a chip shot on the golf course, for example.

However, they all come from the same basic meaning, which is ‘a small piece broken from a larger piece of solid material’. In the case of ‘fish and chips,’ the chip you eat has been cut from a larger potato. Just like ‘fish’, ‘chip’ comes from Old German, but the origin is even older as it seems to have originally been used in the Proto-Indo-European language over 4, 000 years ago.

I should point out that what I call a chip is very different to what many other English speakers call a chip. In the USA and Canada, they eat ‘fries’ or sometimes ‘French fries’. For me, this is the kind of thing you find in Mcdonald’s and is far inferior to the traditional British chip.

They do have the word ‘chip’, though, in the USA and Canada. If you like Pringles or Doritos, then North Americans call that a chip. In the UK, Pringles, Doritos, and the superior Walkers are all called crisps.

See, I told you English was great.

Before I go, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever eaten fish and chips? What did you think about it? What is the most stereotypical food in your country? Let me know on my site,, or on my Facebook or Instagram pages where you can find me as English with Stephen.

Well, after all that talk of food, I am now starving. Thanks for listening and I hope to speak to you again soon.

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