A fisherman is ‘one whose occupation is to catch fish’, the Oxford English Dictionary explains (no surprises there), but it adds that the earliest appearance of this word in the English language is in William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament.
We have been so familiar with this simple word for so long that it never occurs to us that someone, somewhere, invented this word. Well, someone did, and that someone was William Tyndale. It seems simple enough to take two existing words (‘fisher’ and ‘man’) and glue them together - but no one had done it before. It is the same trick Shakespeare pulled off repeatedly. (By glueing ‘change’ and ‘sea’ together, for instance, Shakespeare gave us ‘sea-change’.)
Tyndale was a great coiner of new words and phrases. (Indeed, Tyndale and Shakespeare seem - between the two of them - to embody about half of all the verbal inventiveness ever known in English!) Tyndale uses only the plural form of this word, fishermen, and uses it only once: in Luke 5:2 when Jesus comes upon ‘the fishermen ... washing their nets’. (Or, as Tyndale himself spelled it: ‘the fishermen ... were wasshynge their nettes’. And you complain about modern English spelling!)
In the earlier Wycliffe translation the word ‘fishers’ had been used in this same place where Tyndale gave English a brand new word. A few verses further on, Jesus calls Simon to be his disciple explaining that ‘henceforth thou shalt catch men’. And that makes fisherman a reasonably exact synonym for the word ‘disciple’ (or, indeed, for the term ‘Christian’). So, how’s your fishing going these days?
The editor thanks John Cowing for sending this short piece by Kel Richards, an Australian Radio Broadcaster who loves words. It first appeared The Briefing issue 322 August 2004.