FISH THINK they're so smart. Just because they get to loll in the water all the time, while the rest of us have to get out when our lips turn blue or our two-week holiday runs out, they think they deserve special treatment in everything.

At the dinner table, there are special rules for the eating of fish that friendly animals, such as veals and muttons, wouldn't dream of requiring.

Take the matter of bone and pit removal. Miss Manners is always telling people the simple rule about removing undesirable material from the mouth; it goes out the way it came in. A bit of chicken bone that went in by fork goes out by fork; a grape seed that went in by hand goes out by hand. But that's not good enough for fish. Fish have to be the exception, and fish bones that go in by fish fork are nevertheless entitled to a return trip by hand.

This unwillingness to go along with the crowd does not make fish popular. Some people won't eat them at all because they don't want anything to do with them; and others who don't (out of kind-heartedness) eat agreeable animals, don't mind eating fish who they think of as being cold-hearted."Cold," in the emotional sense, is considered an innate characteristic of fish. You might call someone a "cold fish," but you wouldn't call a different sort of person "a hot, passionate fish."

This may be the reason that fish is often served with the head still on. No one would have the gumption to dig into a turkey while its beady eye was staring up from the plate; but a fish head is not considered to have a reproachful expression, so many people are able to ignore it.

Anyway, they have enough troubles dealing with the body.

Characteristically, fish require special tools. The old-fashioned equipment was two forks, which was used to rake the fish meat as if it were gravel in a Japanese garden. In Victorian times, the fish fork and fish knife were invented. The knife blade has an interesting shape, as if someone had ironed an obelisk and bent it off to one side.

Those who aspire to the British upper classes are advised (most recently by Debrett's, in its re-publication of the "U" and "Non-U" concepts of Nancy Mitford and in "The English Gentlemen") not to use fish knives and forks, because this demonstrates that one did not acquire one's family silver before the Victorian period. However, Americans do not have a severe problem with accepting the shocking modernity of the Victorian period.If an American lives in a Victorian house, he is not expected to complain of its newness.

Actually, the Victorians were experts at finding clever solution to tricky problems and we would do well to make use of them. Putting houseguests who had no business being in love into separate but adjacent guest rooms was their invention, which Miss Manners has long recommended to hosts distraught over the illicit status of their friends.

The fish knife and fish fork should be enthusiastically adodpted by brides, restaurants and anyone else who expects fish in his life.

By grabbing the fish fork firmly in the left hand and the fish knife in the right, pencil style, one arms oneself for a fair contest with any fish. Without them, the fish using its tiny white bones as darts, is likely to win in the end.

Some people believe in decapitating the first first, and de-tailing it, too; others preserve its form, placed across the plate, head to the left and tail to the right. To eat a whole fish that is facing to the right is disgusting and vulgar.

The method of attack is to use the knife to slit the fish in the middle of its side, where it keeps its backbone, before it has a chance to realize what is going on. If you then lift the fish meat off carefully, it should be bone-free. If not, see above method of bone removal from one's mouth. If the bone has gone too deep for that, see a doctor.

After that half has been eaten, the backbone may be moved so that the entire fish skeleton may be placed to the side of the rest of the food. Sometimes that doesn't work, however, so one waits until no one is looking and then flips the fish until it again presents a whole side, which is slit as the first side was.

If you can accomplish all this, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have fought by the fish's own rules-and won. One may then proceed to the meat course, glowing with triumph.


Q: My question is on subway etiquette. I often meet a co-worker whom I do not like on the subway platform; we are heading for the same destination. May one say hello and go further down the platform in order to read one's book? Saying, on a sunny day, that I must rush back to the office for my umbrella is losing its credibility.

A: The instrument you require is in your hands, and it is not an umbrella. All travelers should carry books, whether they read or not, as weapons of defense against the conversational assault. You need not move along the platform after you have greeted your colleague politely; merely move your nose downwards toward your open book. If the person says anything more than a return hello, you pause, look up with a puzzled smile and say slowly, "What?" as if awakening from a deep sleep.If the statement is repeated, you reply, "Oh," with another vague smile, and then return to the book. Two or three rounds of whats and ohs should polish off even a determined talker.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post .