The idiom sleep with the fishes has been popular since the 1970s, though it has been in use longer than that. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, on the ball, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom sleep with the fishes, from where this expression is derived, and some examples of its use in sentences.
To sleep with the fishes means to be murdered, to be killed and the body hidden from the public. The expression sleep with the fishes is a popular term used in media that portray the American Mafia or organized crime. The image is of a murdered person’s body being thrown into a body of water in order to escape detection. 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.” The expression sleep with the fishes may go back much farther. Edmund Spencer used the phrase in the 1830s. There is even a passage in Homer’s The Iliad: “Make your bed with the fishes now…” Related phrases are sleeps with the fishes, slept with the fishes, sleeping with the fishes.
Among her old pals who will not be attending are Jerry Angiulo, Whitey Bulger and Nicky Giso, all of whom sleep with the fishes, as well as Stevie “the Rifleman” Flemmi, who is locked up for life in parts unknown. (The Boston Herald)
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)