• Language: English
  • Pronunciation/ˈmɪnəʊ/
  • Etymology: from the Middle English menawe (a type of small fish)

Being a fan of a lower league club has its moments and, to John Motson’s spasmodic delight, those moments often come in the cups.

If you’re really lucky, as you rampage through the competition you get to be on the actual telly (although as Bradford fans will know, this might take a while…).  A thrilling sideshow to this is watching studio pundits flap in ill-prepared panic when asked to provide two and a half minutes’ insight on your club. To mask this, they reach for the clichés, and it’s usually around this point that your team will get the patronising pat on the head of being described as a ‘minnow’.

What does the word ‘minnow’ mean?

In its most literal sense, a minnow is a small fish from the carp family, most commonly used as bait to catch bigger, better-supported fish that Alan Shearer has actually heard of. Nowadays, the term ‘minnow’ has expanded beyond the carp family to include any kind of small fish used as bait.

The roots of the word are found across the ancestry of the English language. It is present in our Germanic roots – meun (Dutch),  Münne (German), both a type of fish – and these are thought to have been influenced by the Anglo-French menu, meaning ‘small’. From there the word moved into the Middle English menawe, the first known use of which popped up in the 15th century.

The Bard gets involved

As is often the case, Shakespeare has a hand in fast-tracking this word into wider use in English. Sicinius in The Tragedy of Coriolanus is described as a “Triton among the minnows”, painting him a sea god among tiny fish. From there, ‘minnow’ developed into a catch-all for the small and insignificant when compared to something larger and more pre-eminent.

So the term has long carried a figurative use alongside its fishy literality, and this extends to the present day sporting arena whenever underdogs are pitted against their supposed superiors.  A frequent comparison made is with the shark (as in the game Sharks and Minnows).

These were Paul Rideout’s only goals that season

But, of course, there will always be those glorious times when the natural order of things is reversed. So, if you will, indulge me and take a few minutes to enjoy my favourite example of the minnow having their moment.