Fish Out of Water


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

Example: Bill wanted to get fit, so he decided to finally go to the gym. However, Bill had never been to the gym before, so once he got there and saw all of the equipment, it was all very intimidating to him. He had no idea what half of the the machines did, nor did he even know 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:
Out of place
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 the water is where a fish belongs; it’s where they live and they are most comfortable there. But what happens when fish are removed from their “comfort zone” and dropped onto dry land? Well, things go south very quickly for them.

Since fish cannot breathe out of water, it doesn’t take long before they suffocate and die. But 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 go on living for a few hours.

Anyways, if you’ve gone fishing before, you’ve probably seen what a fish out of water looks like. When they are on the ground, or even in your hands, they’ll flop around helplessly as they desperately try to get back to their watery home. It’s kind of sad, really, but here’s the point:

While the fish is flip-flopping around, you can tell it’s obviously uncomfortable. Since the fish is not suited for dry land, it looks out of place. So a comparison is made—someone who finds themselves in an unfamiliar situation (like Bill at the gym in the example above) looks like a fish out of water. Yes, both the fish and the person look completely out of their element.

So, with that out of the way, let’s ask another question: How old is this expression?

This phrase goes back to at least the year 1483. It was written down by an English poet named Geoffrey Chaucer in a work of his, and there’s a part from it that reads:

“…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. While he was there, he wanted to help out with some farm work, but since he had no experience on a farm, Tim just looked like a fish out of water.
  • I bought a sports video game, but when I tried to play it, well, I was a fish out of water; I had trouble getting a hang of the controls.

Did You Know?

Earlier, we 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. However, if they are sleeping underwater, they can hold their breath for about 5-7 hours.