‘ye gods and little fishes!’: meaning and origin

The exclamative phrase ye gods and little fishes! is used to express indignation, disbelief or amazement—especially in a consciously archaic or grandiose way.

This phrase occurs, for example, in Mistletoe and Christian rhyme. Not round here, by Arabella Weir, published in The Independent (London, England) of Sunday 18th December 2005:

According to self-proclaimed believer-in-Christ Cliff Richard, this time of year is all about “mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme”. Mmm, really. Not round my way, it ain’t. […]
[…] If you are blessed with the gift of children, then Christmas is actually about getting on the phone at 9.01am every sodding morning from the beginning of December onwards calling every single branch of Woolworths in the country offering increasingly implausible bribes in exchange for a pink Nintendo DS console. Ye gods and little fishes, if only there were a little more of your “singing in Christian rhyme” and less of the wailing that there’s no point in living without the new Gameboy.

The phrase ye gods and little fishes! is an expanded form of the exclamation ye gods!. The addition of little fishes, which seems to date back to the early 19th century, is unexplained, but the co-occurrence of the nouns fishes and gods in the phrase perhaps suggests a biblical reference to the miracle of the loaves and fishes fed to the five thousand—the following is from the gospel of Matthew, 14:14-21, in the King James Bible (1611):

14 And Iesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was mooued with compassion toward them, and he healed their sicke.
15 And when it was euening, his Disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may goe into the villages, and buy themselues victuals.
16 But Iesus said vnto them, They neede not depart; giue yee them to eate.
17 And they say vnto him, We haue heere but fiue loaues, and two fishes.
18 He said, Bring them hither to me.
19 And hee commanded the multitude to sit downe on the grasse, & tooke the fiue loaues, and the two fishes, and looking vp to heauen, hee blessed, and brake, and gaue the loaues to his Disciples, and the Disciples to the multitude.
20 And they did all eat, & were filled: and they tooke vp of the fragments that remained twelue baskets full.
21 And they that had eaten, were about fiue thousand men, beside women and children.

The exclamation ye gods! is first recorded in The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards (In the Savoy: Printed by T. N. for Henry Herringman, 1672), by the English poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700):

4.
She. Yet at least ’tis a pleasure to know
That you are not unhappy alone:
For the Nymph you adore
Is as wretch’d and more,
And accounts all your suff’rings her own.
5.
He. O ye Gods, let me suffer for both;
At the feet of my Phillis I’le lye:
I’le resign up my Breath,
And take pleasure in Death,
To be pity’d by her when I dye.

The earliest occurrences of the exclamative phrase ye gods and little fishes! that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From an article published in the York Recorder (York, Pennsylvania, USA) of Tuesday 22nd September 1818—reprinted from the New York Courier (New York City, New York, USA):

The opposers of the federal constitution, the adherents of Genet and of the French jacobin anarchy, and the enemies of Washington, became suddenly, “REPUBLICANS!” In defiance of law and the national prosperity, they strove to plunge us into the vortex of the French revolutionary in insanity: but they were nevertheless Republicans. […] Were a few light taxes imposed, their bowels yearned in sympathy with “the mouth of labor” And the STAMP ACT! ye Gods and little fishes! Oh Hunca Munca, Hunca Munca oh! There they beheld British tyranny and oppression, the very Cloven foot of the demon of despotism, plain, palpable and abhorrent to the sight.

2-: From The Orientalist, or, Electioneering in Ireland; A Tale, by myself (London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1820), by ‘Mrs. Purcell’:

When the driver of the piebalds first beheld the Earl’s equipage advancing, he thus addressed his companion, “Do lay aside that paper, Vincent—here is something better worth looking at.”
“Ye gods and little fishes! what roses and lilies—pink, satin, and sable.”
“You know the party?”
“Not I; they are strangers, perhaps the Clanroys: have we room enough to pass?”

3-: From The Press, or Literary Chit-Chat. A Satire (London: Printed for Lupton Relfe, 1822), by the English poet, critic, satirist and essayist John Hamilton Reynolds (1794-1852):

Men oft have fancies vague and wild,
And love them as a fav’rite child;
Sir Thomas thus, in days of yore,
Raved wisely of a fancied shore,
Where laws and manners past a joke
Ruled, he affirms, the docile folk.
Now pray not at my fancy smile,
If, like Sir Thomas, I’ve an isle;
Why should not Jocus as Sir Thomas
Create a realm and people rum as?
Aid me, ye gods and little fishes,
To versify up to my wishes!

4-: From Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton, and the Varieties of Life, Forming the Completest and Most Authentic Lexicon Balatronicum Hitherto Offered to the Notice of the Sporting World (London: Printed for T. Hughes, 1823), by the British author and journalist Jon Bee (John Badcock – fl. 1810-1830):

Gods—the gallery of a theatre contains nothing but gods, when empty they are sylphs of darkness who inhabit those woods (timbers). Jem Bowden called Drury ‘a wilderness.’ Goddesses there are none (as Dogberry would say); this sex being left out in all addresses oral or written: they are supposed to have the power of damning—plays, which constitutes their Godhead; no one believes it, however, ‘the Pit’ in darkness does the deed, the gods of the gallery only growl assent.’ ‘O, ye gods and little fishes!’ Likewise ‘Wooden gods;’ draughts: two stupids bending over, and studying the moves, seem like devotees—at prayer.

5-: From the Black Rock Beacon (Black Rock, New York, USA) of Thursday 10th April 1823:

Limbo.

Spectacles swears by his beard, (but oh ‘ye gods and little fishes,’ he has none) that unless we call him by his proper name, he shall desist from writing editorial articles for Mr. Forwards smut machine, to the utter ruin of that chaste paper. We shall soon “tread the ground of national politics” with him “on any stage,” if his theory of transmigration does not take place, by his being transformed into his original shape of a monkey.

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