I Smell Something Fishy – An Idiom For Indicating Suspicion

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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.

When somebody says they smell something fishy, they mean that they have a feeling something is untrustworthy or suspicious about a person or situation. For instance, when I couldn’t find my brand-new running shoes, I had a fishy feeling my sister “borrowed” them without asking; sure enough, I found them in her closet. 

Idioms, like smell something fishy, are phrases with a figurative meaning that’s different from the literal definition of their individual words. The importance of idioms in English lies in their ability to convey complex ideas more succinctly. They can also serve as a form of cultural shorthand, reflecting a particular community’s values, traditions, and shared experiences.  

In this guide, I’ll delve into the idiom’s definition, how it is used in sentences, and its interesting origins. I’ll also share its related terms, examples, and tips for effectively using it in your writing and conversation. Keep reading to learn more about the idiom smell something fishy, and take the short quiz at the end of the guide to test your knowledge.

I Smell Something Fishy – An Idiom For Indicating Suspicion

What Does the Idiom Smell Something Fishy Mean?

The idiom smell something fishy means to sense that something is not right, suspicious, or questionable about a situation. When someone says they smell something fishy, they are expressing a feeling that there may be hidden motives, deceit, or dishonesty involved. 

The Cambridge Dictionary explains, “If a situation or an explanation smells fishy, it causes you to think that someone is being dishonest.” Moreover, Collins Dictionary agrees with this definition, explaining that “if you describe a situation as fishy, you feel that someone is not telling the truth or behaving completely honestly.”

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

If taken literally, the phrase might suggest that someone is detecting an actual fishy odor, like the smell of fish or seafood. However, figuratively, the idiom implies a sense of suspicion or awareness that something is not right, similar to detecting a bad or suspicious smell.

How Is Smell Something Fishy Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom smell something fishy is a colorful expression often used to convey a sense of suspicion or distrust in a given situation. This phrase suggests that something may not be right or honest, triggering a feeling of skepticism. To explore the versatility of this idiom, the following sections provide valuable insights: 

What Are the Different Ways to Use Smell Something Fishy?

The idiom smell something fishy can be used in various ways to express suspicion, doubt, or a feeling that something is not right. 

  • Detecting deception: “When she noticed inconsistencies in the financial report, Octavia began to smell something fishy and decided to investigate further.”
  • Questionable motives: “As the negotiations progressed, the sudden change in the terms made Bellamy smell something fishy about the other party’s motives.”
  • Distrustful behavior: “When Clarke hesitated to answer direct questions, it made the team members smell something fishy about her involvement in the project.”
  • Unusual circumstances: “Finding the office door unlocked on the weekend raised suspicions, making the employees smell something fishy about potential unauthorized access.”
  • Unexpected changes: “When the project timeline was suddenly shortened without explanation, the team began to smell something fishy and sought clarification from the project manager.”

Where Can You Find Examples of Smell Something Fishy?

You can find examples of the idiom smell something fishy in various everyday scenarios. Here are a few places where you can encounter examples of the idiom:

  • Literature
  • News articles
  • Conversations 
  • Online resources 

Here are a few examples of it being used in online news publications:

Sample comment on Facebook from Raoul Martinez, a TV anchor in San Diego: “You guys buying this? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but this smells fishy to me.” (The Washington Post)

There is, in general, something rather fishy about most claims regarding the single best way to eat. (The Huffington Post)

What Are Some Tips for Using Smell Something Fishy Effectively?

To use the idiom smell something fishy effectively, be sure to pay close attention to how you use the expression within context. Use the following tips to help ensure your audience understands its use:

  • Context matters: Consider the context in which you are using the idiom. Ensure that the situation or conversation warrants suspicion or doubt. 
  • Use it figuratively: Remember, the phrase does not refer to a literal smell of fish but rather represents a sense of suspicion or doubt.
  • Provide additional information: Explain why you feel something is not right or share specific reasons that lead you to believe there is a deception or hidden agenda.
  • Support with examples: If you are expressing suspicion or doubt, providing evidence or reasoning to back up your claim can be helpful. 

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Smell Something Fishy?

Smell Something Fishy Ngram
Smell something fishy usage trend.

The use of the word fishy concerning a foul smell or taste (indicating the fish is old or has gone bad) is from the 16th century. Its use to indicate a sense of questionable or shady behaviors or occurrences is from the 1840s, just as a fishy smell would raise suspicions about a supposedly fresh fish. 

This idea is well captured by Humorist PJ O’Rourke when he said, “Fish is the only food that is considered spoiled once it smells like what it is.”

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

The use of the word fishy to create an analogy related to something that isn’t what it looks like or should be has stayed the same since the mid-19th century. Today, we use the expression that something is fishy or something smells fishy to indicate our skepticism. 

What Are Some Related Terms to Smell Something Fishy?

To help you better understand the use of the idiom in reference to doubt, look at its related terms and phrases. Their use can aid you in placing the idiom within your sentences. 

I Smell Something Fishy – An Idiom For Indicating Suspicion 1



The concept of an antonym for smell something fishy is a bit tricky since the idiom itself implies suspicion or doubt. However, consider the opposite sentiment or the absence of suspicion to create antonyms that convey a lack of suspicion or doubt:

I Smell Something Fishy: Test Your Knowledge!

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Let’s Review

In essence, the idiom smell something fishy captures the subtle art of sensing suspicion or distrust in various situations. Whether detecting deception, questioning motives, or observing unusual circumstances, this expression adds a touch of vivid intuition to our language. 

As you explore the depths of idiomatic expressions, smell something fishy is merely a glimpse into the rich tapestry of linguistic nuances. Delve deeper into our idiom guides on the site, unlocking a sea of expressions that will not only enrich your language skills but also provide insights into the intricacies of communication.