Sleep with the Fishes—A Helpful Idiom or a Trouble Spot

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

Sleep with the fishes is an idiom used to delicately convey the idea that someone has been killed or has met an unfortunate demise

An idiom, like sleep with the fishes, is a figurative expression where the combined meaning differs from the literal interpretation of its individual words. Incorporating idioms into your language can infuse your words with vibrancy, making your speech and writing more engaging and enjoyable for listeners or readers.

This guide delves into the meaning and origins of the idiom sleep with the fishes. It provides related terms and phrases and examples of its usage. After reading, take the quick quiz at the end to test how much you’ve learned.

Sleep with the Fishes—A Helpful Idiom or a Trouble Spot 3

What Does the Idiom Sleep with the Fishes Mean?

The idiom sleep with the fishes means someone has been killed or is dead. It is often used in a dark or sinister context, implying that the person in question has met a tragic or unfortunate fate, typically through violence or foul play.  

According to the Collins Dictionary, the idiom sleeping with the fishes simply means “dead.” Moreover, the Urban Dictionary defines the phrase as “killed and thrown in a river, ocean, water body.”

This is an informal expression that should be used with care in everyday conversation, as it could easily be misconstrued as being disrespectful to someone who has been unlawfully killed or has vanished without a trace.

I recently composed a funeral tribute for a man I knew to have been a keen fisherman. While the idiom briefly crossed my mind, I refrained from using it to avoid causing any offense.

Variations of the Idiom

Variations of the idiom sleep with the fishes include: 

  • Swim with the fishes
  • Rest with the fishes
  • Slumber beneath the waves

How Is Sleep with the Fishes Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom sleep with the fishes carries a dark and ominous undertone, often associated with crime or tragedy.

In the following sections, we explore the various ways this idiom is commonly employed, examining different contexts where it is used to convey a person’s demise or unfortunate fate. Additionally, we provide examples to illustrate its contextual nuances and offer tips for effectively incorporating this evocative idiom into your language repertoire.

What Are the Different Ways to Use Sleep with the Fishes?

  • Crime and retribution: “In the world of organized crime, betrayal often leads to individuals sleeping with the fishes.”
  • Fatal consequences: “The spy, exposed and compromised, faced the fatal consequence of sleeping with the fishes.”
  • Tragic endings: “The protagonist’s ill-fated choices eventually led to him sleeping with the fishes in the final act of the movie.”
  • Mysterious disappearances: “Whispers in the criminal underworld suggested that those who crossed the mysterious figure often met their end by sleeping with the fishes.”
  • Historical references: “Throughout history, leaders who fell out of favor with powerful regimes were often said to have met their demise by sleeping with the fishes.”

Where Can You Find Examples of Sleep with the Fishes?

The idiom is used widely in everyday conversation, TV shows, movies, and online media. Here are a few examples:

Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking mafia classic—as well as its great sequel and the mediocre third film in the trilogy—will sleep with the fishes on January 1. (Esquire Magazine)

Not like a “sleep with the fishes” kind of Godfather, but more in the fairy vein—although he didn’t seem to be magical so much as whimsical. (The Peninsula Clarion)

What Are Some Tips for Using Sleep with the Fishes Effectively?

  • Use sleep with the fishes in contexts where a dark or ominous tone is appropriate, such as crime narratives or cautionary tales.
  • Deploy the idiom sparingly to maintain its impact, avoiding overuse in a single piece of communication.
  • Consider the metaphorical weight of the idiom; it can be used metaphorically to convey downfall or ruin in various non-criminal contexts.
  • Be mindful of cultural associations, as the idiom is often linked to crime and may carry specific connotations.
  • Ensure that the use of the idiom aligns with your intended message, conveying a sense of tragic or unfortunate fate.
  • Employ the idiom in situations where you aim to evoke emotions such as suspense, dread, or sympathy.
  • Combine the idiom with varied language to maintain linguistic variety and prevent repetition within the context.
  • Use the idiom to engage the audience’s imagination, creating a vivid mental image that enhances the storytelling or narrative.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Sleep with the Fishes?

Sleep with the Fishes Ngram
Sleep with the fishes usage trend.

The idiom sleep with the fishes was popularized in the 1970s in Mario Puzo’s novel and movie, The Godfather: “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

However, indications suggest that the expression might have roots reaching further back in time. Edmund Spencer employed a similar phrase in the 1830s, hinting at an earlier usage. Notably, even in Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” a passage references making one’s bed with the fishes, providing a glimpse into the potential antiquity of this evocative idiom.

What Are Some Related Terms to Sleep with the Fishes?

Synonyms and antonyms can help provide context and clarify the idiom’s meaning. Feel free to use any if you feel the idiom doesn’t work with the context you’re dealing with.

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  • Pushing up daisies
  • Resting in peace (RIP)
  • Six feet under
  • Taking a dirt nap
  • Swimming with the worms
  • In a pine overcoat
  • Taking the eternal nap
  • Meeting St. Peter


  • Alive and kicking
  • Living large
  • Thriving 
  • Going strong
  • In the land of the living
  • Full of life

Sleep with the Fishes: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about Sleeping with the Fishes?

After exploring the idiom sleep with the fishes and understanding its origins, meanings, and usages, you now have a richer knowledge of this colorful expression. Employing such idioms in your language can infuse your conversations with vigor, making them more appealing.

So, dive deeper, incorporate, and experiment with idioms. Utilize the quick quiz as a fun way to reinforce and test your newly acquired knowledge. Make your language more lively and engaging—one idiom at a time.