He didn’t coin the term “codfish aristocracy”, but Wallace Irwin neatly expressed its meaning in the first stanza of “Codfish Aristocracy,” which he has given us permission to quote:
Of all the fish that swim or swish
In ocean’s deep autocracy,
There’s none possess such haughtiness
As the codfish aristocracy.
In fact, the name was coined thirty years or more before Irwin was born in 1876.
It originated in Massachusetts to denote a class of nouveau riche who had acquired wealth from the codfishing industry.
George Stimpson in A Book about a Thousand Things (1946) reminds us that John Rowe, a Boston merchant, made a motion in the legislature on March 17, 1784, that “leave be given to hang up the representation of a Codfish in the room where the House sits, as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of the Commonwealth,” a motion that was carried, thus accounting for the painted wooden codfish still hanging in the chamber of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts.