40 Fish Idioms

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The ubiquity of fish in culinary traditions and the popularity of fishing as both a recreational pastime and a food-gathering activity has led to the development of many fish-based idioms, including those listed and described below.

1. all is fish that comes to his net: a proverb that alludes to a person’s resourcefulness

2–4. another/different/whole other kettle of fish: spoken to recognize an abrupt shift in the topic being discussed

5–6. better/other fish to fry: a reference to having more important things to do than what one is doing or than what is proposed

7. big fish: an important or influential person

8–9. big fish in a little/small pond: an important or influential person on an insignificant scale, such as in a small community

10. cold fish: a person who does not exude friendliness or show emotions

11. cry stinking fish (primarily British English): self-deprecate

12. drink like a fish: imbibe excessive amounts of alcohol

13–14. fine/pretty kettle of fish: a predicament

15. fish around: investigate

16–17. fish for a compliment/compliments: encourage someone to say something favorable about you without asking outright

18. fish in troubled waters: involve oneself in a dangerous or difficult situation to risk gaining an advantage

19. fish or cut bait: an admonition to act or to remove oneself as an obstacle to another person acting

20. fish out of water: a reference to a person who feels awkward or uncomfortable because he or she is in an unfamiliar environment

21–24. fish out/fish out of/fish up/fish up out of: retrieve (the first variation is also used literally to mean “deplete a body of water of its fish population by overfishing”)

25. fish story: an exaggerated account or tall tale, from the supposed tendency of fishermen to claim that the “one that got away” was larger than it actually was

26. fish-eating grin: smug smile

27. fish-eye lens: a type of wide-angle camera lens

28. fish: inept or stupid person

29. fishy: suspicious

30. like shooting fish in a barrel: a reference to something that is extremely easy to do, on the notion that fish swimming in a barrel rather than in open water make for an easy target

31–32. need (something) like/about as much as a fish needs a bicycle: a reference to the incompatibility of a fish and a bicycle to convey that something is utterly useless to someone

33. neither fish nor fowl: an allusion to something difficult to categorize, describe, or understand

34–35. odd/queer fish: a strange person

36–37. plenty of/more fish in the sea: a reference to the notion that many other romantic partners are available to one after the end of a relationship or after one is rejected by another person

38. teach a man to fish: the essence of a proverb, one version of which is “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” which means that it is better to teach someone to do something than to do it for him or her

39. The cat would eat fish but would not wet her feet: A proverbial comment referring to the necessity of enduring annoyance or taking risks to achieve goals

40. What’s that got to do with the price of fish? (primarily British English): a response to an irrelevant comment or a non sequitur

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