Have You Ever Felt Like a “Fish Out of Water”?

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water?  The short answer is “probably not.”  If you really felt like the fish, you’d feel as if you were drowning.

This is another of those word-groups whose meaning must be learned from the whole, not the sum of the parts: idioms.

Let’s quickly define the meaning of the idiom “a fish out of water:”

  • Being in an unfamiliar situation
  • Experiencing mild social unease
  • Experiencing physical danger or adventure

Idioms and knowing the language

It’s one of hundreds of complex expressions that swirl about us every day.  We’ve memorized them as part of knowing the language.  Whenever we have a multi-part item whose meaning is more than the sum of the parts, know instantly that we’re dealing with an idiom.  But how do we know?  My guess is that we learn idioms by the same processes that we use to acquire every other aspect of language: imitation, observation, analogy, conscious guidance, corrective interaction, and others.

Cognitive burden of understanding idioms

Here’s a list of common idioms:  https://www.literacyatwork.net/uploads/8/3/5/9/8359813/idioms_and_meanings.pdf

As I looked over the list, I was reminded how common idioms are, and how much goes into understanding them.  There’s a bit of a cognitive burden involved: You have to listen to or read the whole thing before you can go back, identify it as an idiom, and process it as a whole (all the while listening to the rest of what’s being said).

Graphic illustrating what an idiom is. An idiom is a phrase in which the words are understood to represent something different from their literal meaning.

On Vulcan, they’re always literal

I’m reminded of an exchange between Kirk and Spock in one of the Star Trek movies:

Kirk: If we play our cards right, she’ll tell us.

Spock: How will playing cards help?

Every day, we’re confronted by hundreds of interpretive choices: should I take what was said literally, or is there a metaphoric, idiomatic meaning?  Yeah, I paid for it, cost me an arm and a leg, but I paid.To understand that, we have to go from literal to idiomatic and back to literal, all in moment.

Language and metaphor

Fish out of water is a metaphor as well: “it’s as if I felt like…”

Metaphor is a cognitive process that so pervades our language that we don’t notice it.  It is the transference of qualities from one word/phrase to another, from concrete/physical to abstract, even subjective.

In this case, the metaphor of fish out of water moves through various meanings:  (i) similarity of sensation (I feel like I’m drowning) which is immediately and significantly weakened to (ii) “unfamiliar situation,” which can range from (iii) mild social unease to (iv) physical danger and adventure.

Fish out of water stories

In our daily lives, (ii) and (iii) are more prevalent.  But (iv) is the plot premise of at least 10%, maybe more, of all movies and novels.  Dramatic or comedic tension is generated by the unfamiliarity of the fish in his/her new environment.

The oldest example I can think of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).  In a new movie, Central Intelligence, an accountant is dragged through “a world of shootouts, double-crosses, and espionage.”  Another fish out of water.

Here’s an interesting source that contains a video on the use of the idiom: https://nofilmschool.com/fish-out-of-water-trope .

I suppose the ultimate “fish out of water” plot (so far) is the sci-fi sub-genre in which one person’s consciousness is transferred to another person’s body.

Graphic illustrating what it means to be a fish out of water. This phrase can refer to being in an unfamiliar situation, experience mild social unease, or experiencing physical danger or adventure.

Pay attention to language

I used to tell students that understanding linguistics begins with one imperative: pay attention to language.

It’s fun to watch idioms and metaphors come and go.  Fish out of water is somewhat shopworn.  Die on that hill is recent and current, with the meaning ‘commit unconditionally,’ e.g., You don’t want to die on that hillGo there is also of recent vintage, with the meaning of ‘mention,’ ‘discuss’ (I don’t want to go there).

The payoff

Paying attention to language has definite benefits.  When you understand the favorite expressions of the people whom you seek to associate with, you’ll fit in better, and there will be more mutual understanding (or at least use of the same buzzwords).

You won’t feel like a fish out of water.

Want more idioms, metaphors and common expressions ?  Here is some further reading suggestions:

Dog Whistle

Scot Free

Close, But No Cigar

Go To Hell In A Handbasket


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By Alan Perlman PhD

Alan M. Perlman has Ph.D. in linguistics and 20+ years' experience as a business ghostwriter, a professional speech writer, and a book manuscript editor. Dr. Perlman holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from Brown University, as well as a master's degree and PhD in linguistics from the University of Chicago.

During his many years of corporate speechwriting and ghostwriting, Dr. Perlman has written almost every kind of corporate communication – executive speeches, annual reports, employee communications, magazine articles, video scripts, and much more. As a freelance professional speech writer, ghostwriter, and editor of fiction as well as nonfiction works, he has helped clients express themselves precisely and effectively.

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