What Does Give a Man a Fish Mean?

Give a Man a Fish Meaning

Definition: It is better to teach people how to do something themselves than to just do it for them.

This expression is just part of the full proverb, If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. It focuses on the idea that long-term benefits are more useful than short-term benefits.

Origin of Give a Man a Fish

Although this idiom became popular around the 1950s, its first use (in the formation we now know today) was actually in the late 1800s.

Anne Isabella Ritchie, a British writer, was the first to use this expression, which she did in a book called Mrs. Dymond.

Examples of Give a Man a Fish

who said give a man a fishThis proverb is used to encourage a long-term solution in the dialogue between two friends below.

Kira: I see the same homeless man in front of my coffee shop every day.

Dan: Oh, yeah?

Kira: I don’t understand why he’s homeless. He’s polite, and smart, and he seems very capable of holding a job. Sometimes, I give him money, but I think he should work for money rather than accepting handouts.

Dan: Well, you know what they say about giving a man a fish.

Kira: What are you suggesting?

Dan: You’ve been trying to hire someone to help you make and serve the coffee. Why not ask him if he’d like the job? If he’s just had some bad luck, this could help him start to put his life back together, and it could help you have a good employee.

Kira: Hmm. I’ll think about it.

give a man a fish Bible verseIn our next example, two women using a copy machine make use of the idiom.

Gertrude: How did you get this to print?

Ruby: Here, let me show you how to do it.

Gertrude: No, no, I don’t want to learn how to do it. I hate copy machines. Please just do it for me.

Ruby: No way. I’m not doing this for you every time you need to make a copy.

Gertrude: You don’t have to do it every time, just this time.

Ruby: Nope. If you don’t learn now, you’ll just keep asking me. Give a man a fish, you know.

Gertrude: Ugh. Fine. Show me how to do it.

More Examples

In this news excerpt, the proverb demonstrates that helping poor people is more complicated than just teaching them how to do things themselves.

To make the point, Berg inverted a common expression adopted by those who worry about creating dependency — “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

  • “What if you had to account for the fact that someone already stole the fish, or polluted the lake?” he said. “What if there was an electric fence around it so you couldn’t actually fish? The saying doesn’t stand anymore, does it?” Washington Post

This example of the idiom shows it being used in the context of a kitchen that has the purpose of helping to feed people living in poverty.

  • In York, a longtime resident who works for an international relief organization — where he learned firsthand the truth behind the proverb “If you give a man a fish . . .” — spearheaded the effort to open Healthy World Cafe.  –Washington Post


The phrase give a man a fish is used to describe that helping people once is not as good as helping them learn how to help themselves.