A Fish Out of Water—A Simple Idiom for Feeling Awkward

Photo of author

Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

A fish out of water means someone who feels uncomfortable, awkward, or out of place in a particular situation or environment

Idioms, like a fish out of water, are linguistic expressions that go beyond their literal meanings, conveying figurative interpretations. These play a vital role in English, injecting vibrancy, cultural depth, and succinctness into communication. They serve as expressive tools, adding a touch of color to language and facilitating nuanced expression of ideas.

This article dives into the idiom’s meaning, explores its origin, and discusses its proper usage in different contexts. It also provides variations, tips for its effective usage, and related terms and phrases. So, keep reading to learn more about the idiom a fish out of water, and put your newfound knowledge with a short quiz at the end of this guide.

A Fish Out of Water—A Simple Idiom for Feeling Awkward 2

What Does the Idiom a Fish Out of Water Mean?

The idiom a fish out of water means an individual experiencing discomfort or unease in a specific environment. It conveys the sense of someone who is not in their usual or natural element, much like a fish that’s not in its natural water habitat. 

Collins Dictionary says, “If you feel like a fish out of water, you do not feel comfortable or relaxed because you are in an unusual or unfamiliar situation.” Moreover, the Cambridge Dictionary states that the idiom means “a person who feels awkward or unhappy because they are in a situation that is not familiar or because they are different from the people around them.”

For example, as a lifeline fan of classic rock, I was very much a fish out of water when I attended a punk concert with my friend when we were in high school.

Is a Fish Out of Water Hyphenated?

The idiom fish out of water is typically hyphenated when used as an adjective or a compound modifier before a noun.

  • He felt like a fish-out-of-water student in the new school.

However, when the phrase fish out of water is used as a standalone noun phrase or in a sentence without modifying another noun, it is generally not hyphenated.

The expression is not often seen as an adjective since most three- and four-word modifiers sound awkward and may interrupt the flow of the sentence. 

Variations of the Idiom

Here are a few variations of the idiom, often modified to fit the context or to add flavor:

  • Feel like a fish out of water
  • Be like a fish out of water
  • Like a fish in water

How Is a Fish Out of Water Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom a fish out of water paints a vivid picture of discomfort and unfamiliarity in various situations. In the following sections, explore the diverse applications of this expressive phrase, discover real-world examples highlighting its usage, and gain practical tips for incorporating it effectively into your language. 

What Are the Different Ways to Use a Fish Out of Water?

Consider these different contexts and their related sentence examples to help you understand the idiom’s use.

  • Social awkwardness: “At the formal dinner, John, who was more accustomed to casual gatherings, felt like a fish out of water.”
  • New environments: “On her first day at the new job, Clarke was like a fish out of water, unfamiliar with the office culture.”
  • Cultural displacement: “While traveling abroad, the tourist often felt like a fish out of water, struggling to adapt to local customs.”
  • Unfamiliar tasks or roles: “Assigned to lead a complex project, the junior employee felt like a fish out of water in a role beyond her usual responsibilities.”
  • Mismatched expertise: “In the technology seminar, the non-tech-savvy participant seemed like a fish out of water amid the jargon-filled discussions.”
  • Language barriers: “In the foreign language class, the student who hadn’t studied the language before felt like a fish out of water.”

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom a Fish Out of Water?

Examples of the idiom a fish out of water can be found in various forms of media, including:

  • Literature 
  • Movies and TV shows
  • Personal anecdotes 
  • Online, news, or magazine articles 

The idiom is often found online in various news stories and editorials to highlight various personal narratives:

When she fell in love with the local outdoorsman, she moved and became a fish out of water in New York Mills. (The Wadema Pioneer Journal)

Yashere’s comedy tends to revolve around being a fish out of water, the tensions inherent in being born in London but having Nigerian roots, or a black Brit in America. (The Guardian)

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom a Fish Out of Water Effectively?

Here are some tips for using the idiom a fish out of water effectively:

  • Understand the context: Consider the context in which you are using the idiom. This will help ensure that your usage is appropriate and clear.
  • Use descriptive language: When using the idiom, provide additional details or descriptions to elaborate on specific aspects of the situation or environment that made you feel like a fish out of water. 
  • Consider alternatives: If you feel the idiom may be overused, consider using synonyms or related idiomatic expressions that convey a similar meaning. 
  • Provide an explanation if needed: If you are using the idiom in a context where the meaning may not be immediately clear to your audience, provide a brief explanation or context to help them understand.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom a Fish Out of Water?

Fish Out of Water Ngram
Fish out of water usage trend.

The first known use of the idiom a fish out of water was published in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century:

“…a monk, when he is cloisterless;
Is like to a fish that is waterless”

Chaucer was well known for his metaphorical expressions and satirical writings, making it no surprise he may be one of the most recognized authors to first publish this popular phrase. 

The earliest use of the modern wording can be found in Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage from 1613:

“Arabians out of the desarts are as Fishes out of the Water.”

An avid world traveler, Purchas wrote extensively about the cultures he came across and his observations of them. 

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

The idiom is used today in the same manner Chaucer introduced it in his classic story. The expression (or one similar to it) likely was well known long before its familiar use to highlight something or someone placed in the wrong environment.

What Are Some Related Terms to a Fish Out of Water?

Consider replacing a fish out of water with a related synonym to avoid overusing it or making it sound cliche. 

A Fish Out of Water—A Simple Idiom for Feeling Awkward 1


Here are some synonyms for a fish out of water. They convey the idea of feeling out of one’s element, uncomfortable, or not fitting in a particular situation or environment. 

  • Misplaced
  • Out of place
  • Alienated
  • Uncomfortable
  • Incongruous
  • Awkward
  • Unfamiliar
  • Ill-suited

Antonyms for A Fish Out of Water

Here are some antonyms for a fish out of water that convey a sense of being at ease, fitting in, and being in a familiar or suitable environment.

  • Comfortable
  • Adapted
  • In one’s element
  • Familiar
  • At home
  • Assimilated
  • Well-suited

A Fish Out of Water: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about a Fish Out of Water?

The idiom a fish out of water captures the essence of feeling uncomfortable, out of place, or ill-suited in a particular situation or environment. While its exact origin may be unclear, the phrase’s metaphorical usage has become deeply ingrained in the English language. Its use resonates with individuals who can relate to being disconnected or unfamiliar with their surroundings.

If you’ve enjoyed unraveling the layers of this idiom, there’s a sea of linguistic treasures awaiting your discovery in our other guides. Keep delving into the fascinating world of idioms to enhance your language journey!

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: