Fish and carrots

What do fish and carrots have in common? Aside from potential ingredients for a tasty dish by my brother @jeffculy, I mean.

Awhile ago I somehow stumbled across an early Italian-English dictionary. It was compiled by John Florio, yet another person who probably wasn’t Shakespeare. Although Florio is (apparently) better known for his translations into English of Montaigne and other Continental authors, his dictionary is quite an impressive feat. The dictionary at that link is to the second edition in 1611, and it contains over 70,000 entries, all of which he compiled by hand. He did have copyists to help with the actual book, but he alone gathered all the information.

It’s fun to browse through the dictionary, finding amusing expressions like:


Andáre dôue ne Pápa ne Imperatô’re puó mandár Imbasciatô’re
= To go where neither the Pope nor the Emperor can send an Ambassador
[my literal translation]


I can’t tell whether it was a true euphemism (for which one of our modern euphemisms is “to go to the bathroom”), or whether Florio was just having some fun (though he was Italian by birth, he was an English Protestant). An Italian friend didn’t know the expression, which could mean that it’s obsolete. In addition, I couldn’t find any independent references or uses of it, either.

One of the main reasons you use a dictionary is to look up the meanings of words or phrases that you don’t know, especially when they’re in a language that you are learning. Now, you know you’re in trouble when you don’t understand the definition that is in the language you do know. Take a look at this entry:


Dáre caróte
=to give carrots
[my literal translation]
to giue a gudgeon.


I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what a gudgeon is, so I looked it up. It’s a type of small fish. Among the links in that Wikipedia page is one to a list of record holders for catching fish, and it turns out there is one for gudgeon. Just so you know, the record gudgeon is 5 ounces.

Unfortunately, even knowing that a gudgeon is a type of small fish didn’t really help me, since it’s pretty clear that giving carrots is not literally the same as giving a small fish. Fortunately, there’s another similar carrot entry, which clarified things somewhat:


Cacciár caróte
=to hunt (or chase) carrots
[my literal translation]
to make one swallow a gudgeon, or beleeue a lie, and that the Moone is made of greene-cheese.


So now my guess is that dare carote means to tell a (silly) lie. This is confirmed by the entry in an Italian dictionary from 1612, which gives the meaning of to tell a lie in jest.

By the way, Wikipedia says that the expression the moon is made of green cheese was “commonly understood as early as 1638.” Maybe they can update the entry, since Florio’s first edition of the dictionary from 1598 has the same entry for cacciár caróte.

It turns out that Shakespeare uses gudgeon once with a silliness related sense, though not a lying one:

But fish not with this melancholy bait
For this fool gudgeon, this opinion.

Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1

So Shakespeare must have really been Florio. How does that gudgeon and carrots dish taste?

More information

If you want to search the Italian part of Florio’s dictionary and see the original pages, Greg Lindahl, who was instrumental in typing in the dictionary, has a simple way to search it. The link above to the definition of cacciár caróte in the first edition is also to Lindahl’s site. A huge thanks to him!

In addition, this nice site by Marianna Iannaconne has collected many articles about John Florio and his works, and includes her own research as well.