The Fish Rots from the Head – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone that by removing the head of an organization, the rest of it will fail? If so, you could use the phrase “the fish rots from the head.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The expression, “The fish rots from the head,” means that when you remove the leader, the group, employees, or followers don’t know what to do and disband.

Without the leadership guiding the rest of the associates, the organization has no direction or drive. It’s a common phrase used to describe the destruction of illegal crime syndicates, like the mob.

If you use “the fish rots from the head,” you’re using it to describe a situation where corrupt leadership fails, causing the rest of the organization to fall apart.

Example Usage

“Did you hear that they got that mob boss the other day? Now it’s a matter of time before his organization falls apart and there’s a gang war. The fish rots from the head.”

“The fish rots from the head. Take out the leader, and the rest of the pack will slowly dissipate into nothing but roaming fools.”

“The fish rots from the head sounds like it’s some sort of strategy from the Art of War by Sun Tzu. I wonder if he wrote it?”

“The best way to nullify the situation is to take out the leader. The fish rots from the head, and removing the government will throw the country into chaos.”

“The fish rots from the head, not the tail. So, we go after the leadership, and the rest of the organization will fall apart.”

“That’s the thing about organized crime. The fish rots from the head. Take out the boss, and there’s a power vacuum that tears the mob apart.”

Origin

The expression “The fish rots from the head” originates from the original version of “a fish stinks from the head down.” Language experts believe the phrase comes from Turkey and the domination of the Turkish empire over the middle eastern region.

Sir James Porter compiled a set of observations on the Turkish people’s law, religion, government, and mannerisms, publishing them in  1768, where the saying appears as follows.

“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.”

Rumi, a Turkish poet who lived towards the end of the 13th century, wrote “The Third Book of Masnavi,” where the phrase appears as follows.

“Fish begins to stink at the head, not the tail.”

Phrases Similar to The Fish Rots from the Head

  • Cut off the head and the body dies.

Phrases Opposite to The Fish Rots from the Head

  • We’re all in this together.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • The fish rots from the head.

Ways People May Say The Fish Rots from the Head Incorrectly

The expression has nothing to do with rotting fish. The fish is an organization, illegal or legal, and the head is the head of the organization. This phrase has nothing to do with fishing, eating, or selling fish.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase The Fish Rots from the Head

You can use “the fish rots from the head” to describe how an organization will fall apart after you remove its leader. There are several memes online referring to the collapse of the GOP after Donald Trump lost the race for a second presidential term. However, it’s a good way to visualize the meaning of the saying.

It’s usually a politically-motivated saying or used in the context of puritanized crime. It describes the removal of the driving force behind the organization and the emergence of a power vacuum. The fish rots from the head could describe a corrupt CEO driving his organization into the ground or a cult leader being arrested and the cult falling apart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.