Fish Out of Water


When someone is a fish out of water, it means they are in a situation that they’re unfamiliar with, so they look out of place and uncomfortable.

Example: Bill has wanted to get in shape for a long time, so he finally decided to go to the gym. He’d never been to the gym before, so seeing all the exercise equipment for the first time was intimidating. He had no idea what half of the machines did or even how to use them.

Thus, while Bill was at the gym, you could say that he looked like a fish out of water.
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Out of place
2. A square peg in a round hole
A fish without any water.

The Origin Of ‘Fish Out Of Water’

This phrase comes from how out of place a fish looks once they are out of the water. Indeed, everyone knows that fish belong in the water. It’s their natural habitat—the water is where they are most comfortable! However, what happens when a fish is removed from that environment? Things go poorly very quickly for them.

Since fish cannot breathe out of water, it doesn’t take long before they suffocate and die. How long can a fish survive without water? This depends on what kind of fish it is. Some fish will die within a few minutes, while others can live for a few hours.

If you’ve gone fishing before, you probably know what a fish out of water looks like. They flop around helplessly as they try to get back to their watery home. A fish is in this situation looks uncomfortable and out of place. Thus, a comparison is made—when someone finds themselves in an unfamiliar situation, they look like a fish out of water. Both the fish and the person look completely out of their element.

Anyway, enough about that. Now, let’s talk about how old this expression is. This phrase was written down by an English poet named Geoffrey Chaucer in a work of his from 1483:

“…a huge man, uncouth; a master of vessel and knew all the ports; not ride well; like a fish out of water as sat on his horse.”

That means this phrase is over 530 years old, at least!

Example Sentences for ‘A Fish Out Of Water’

  • Tim visited his grandpa’s farm on the weekend. He wanted to help out while he was there, but since he had no experience on a farm, he looked like a fish out of water.
  • I bought a sports game and I was like a fish out of water trying to play it. The controls were difficult for me to get a hang of.

Did You Know?

Earlier, I talked about how long certain fish can survive without water, ranging anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Well, now let’s do the opposite: How long can animals that breath oxygen survive underwater? Obviously, it varies depending on the animal, but let’s look at a few:

1. Dolphins: Around 10 minutes

2. Sperm Whales: 90 minutes

3. Sea Turtles: Several hours. If they are sleeping underwater, they can hold their breath for about 5-7 hours.

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