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/or uncomfortable.

Example: It’s been a long time coming, but Bill has finally decided to get into shape. He drove to the gym and walked through the doors for the first time! After seeing all the exercise equipment, he felt intimidated; he had no clue what half of them did or even how to use them.

Thus, while Bill walked around the gym figuring things out, you might say that he looked like a fish out of water.

1. Out of one’s element
2. Out of place

A fish without any water.

The Origin Of ‘Fish Out Of Water’

Where does this phrase come from? The expression ‘a fish out of water‘ likely comes from how out of place a fish looks once they removed from their natural habitat. Indeed, everyone knows that fish belong in the water; it’s where they are most comfortable. However, if a fish is taken away from that environment, well, it doesn’t take long before they suffocate and die. How long can a fish survive without water? It depends on what kind of fish it is; some will die within a few minutes, while others can live for a few hours.

If you’ve gone fishing, then you probably know what a fish on land looks like. They flop around helplessly as they try to get back to their watery home. A fish in this situation looks uncomfortable and out of place. Thus, a comparison is made—when someone finds themselves in an unfamiliar situation, they might look like a fish out of water. In other words, 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

  • My uncle hardly ever spends time on computers, so he was like a fish out of water when I tried teaching him how to use one.
  • When Tim visited his grandpa’s farm on the weekend, he wanted to help out while he was there. However, he had never set foot on a farm before, so he looked like a fish out of water.

Did You Know?

Earlier I talked about how long certain fish can survive without water, which ranged from a few minutes to a few hours. But what about animals holding their breath underwater? According to the website The Swim Guide, here are three animals and about how long they can hold their breath underwater:

1. Sperm Whale: 90 minutes
2. Sloth: 40 minutes
3. Dolphins: 10 minutes.