It can be more beneficial in the long run to teach a person how to do something than to do that something for them.
The full proverb (though the wording does vary) goes like this: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’
The Origin Of ‘Give a Man a Fish’
Teaching a person a useful skill can be more beneficial in the long run than filling a need temporarily, that’s essentially the meaning of this proverb. So, for example, if you give a hungry man a fish then his hunger will be satisfied, but only for a short time. If, instead, the man were taught how to fish, then he could eat whenever he got hungry. Well, assuming he is able to catch a fish whenever he wants to.
This phrase is at least 120 years old, as it can be found in a book from the mid to late 19th century. A writer named Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie wrote the saying down in a novel of hers called Mrs. Dymond, published in 1885:
“He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I supposed the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.”
Anne Ritchie (the writer quoted above) is credited as the one who coined this phrase.
- I have a friend named Brian who orders takeout food nearly every day because he doesn’t know how to cook, but doing this has been burning a hole in his wallet. So I decided to give the man a fish (figuratively speaking, of course) by teaching him how to cook.
Note: The meaning of a phrase can be found with ease. On the other hand, finding their origin, that is hard, and sometimes even impossible. So what will I list on a phrase’s page if the origin is unclear? If there’s a theory that exists that talks about how the saying came to be, then that will probably be listed on the page. If not, then at the very least I’ll try to include the oldest known quote of the saying that I can find.
The point of these quotes is you an idea on how old the it is. So, for example, if an expression is written in a newspaper from the year 1700 and I have a citation of it, then what that tells you is that it’s 319 years old, at minimum.