What Does A Fish Out Of Water Mean?

A Fish Out of Water Meaning

Definition: A person who is uncomfortable in an unfamiliar situation.

This expression is commonly used to describe the intense discomfort or lack of knowledge that a person has when he is trying to do something that he has never done, and that does not come naturally to him.

This phrase can describe anyone who has been placed out of his natural habitat and does not know what to do.

Origin of A Fish Out of Water

This expression dates back to the year 1483, when it was used by English writer Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous book, The Canterbury Tales, to describe one of the characters who did not feel comfortable riding a horse.

  • Shipman: 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.

Examples of A Fish Out of Water

idiom fish out of water definitionHere is a case where two college friends use the idiom to discuss a class project on which they have been working.

Karl: This project is taking forever.

Frank: It’s getting faster, though. The more I learn about ancient Greece, the easier it gets.

Karl: Well, I feel like a fish out of water with this project. I know a lot about Roman history, but nearly nothing about Greek history.

Frank: That’s the point. If you already knew everything about it, you wouldn’t need to be in school.

Karl: I guess you’re right.

fish out of water expression In this example, two friends discuss an upcoming wedding.

Lily: I can’t wait for your wedding!

Grace: Actually, I’m thinking of eloping.

Lily: You can’t elope! You’ve always wanted a big wedding!

Grace: No, it was you who wanted a big wedding. I’ve never been comfortable being the center of attention. I’d be like a fish out of water. It’s better to avoid the whole thing.

Lily: That’s not true. You’d have a great time! Well, actually, now that I think about it more, you’re probably right. You’re really bad in large groups of people.

More Examples

In the excerpt below, a doctor without government experience uses the expression to explain that if he did work in the government, it would be something very new for him.

  • He added with a chuckle, “Having me as a federal bureaucrat would be like a fish out of water, quite frankly.” –Washington Post

In this news excerpt, the author describes a football player as a fish out of water because of how uncomfortable the player seems while playing.

  • What makes this a fairly desperate need though is that fact that Collins looked like a fish out of water as a rookie. He finished with the lowest coverage grade of any safety in the league and is a candidate to make the move to linebacker. –Washington Post


The phrase fish out of water describes anyone who is outside of his comfort zone, or who feels awkward in a given situation.