Let me state the obvious by saying that the natural habitat of a fish is in the water;
it's the place where they are most comfortable. However, if you remove a fish from that environment and drop them onto land, what happens? Well, they flop and wiggle around as they desperately try to find their way back home. Yes, fish are completely out of their element anywhere else except for in the water. Thus, at some point, people must have noticed how awkward a fish looks after being taken out of the water, and that uncomfortable, fishy situation began being applied metaphorically to people who look to be out of their comfort zone.
There's an early example of this phrase that comes from the year 1483, written by an English poet named Geoffrey Chaucer in one of his literary works:
"...a huge man, uncouth; a master of vessel and knew all the ports; not ride well; like a fish out of water
as sat on his horse."
Reference: The newspaperarchive contained a digital copy of the newspaper with the expression.
Note: The history, or the origins of common idioms can be difficult to trace down, so finding the precise time a saying came into existance is no walk in the park. What you will usually find on this site are moments in history where an expression started to be used on a widely-known basis. For instance, a lot of popular sayings can be spotted in old newspapers from several decades ago, but think about that for a second. If an idiom is being used in the media, it seems apparent that everybody already knows about it! What does that mean? Well, it means the origins of the phrase are probably much older.
For the most part, what you'll find on this site are early usages of particular expressions, usually coming from aged books, plays, poems, or newspapers. It's meant to give you an estimate on how long certain phrases have been used for, but not necessarily where they originated from.
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* Tim looked like a fish out of water when he arrived at the farm, and that comes as no surprise because he is used to living in a big city.
* I accepted an invitation to sing at my brother's wedding, but after standing up in front of the crowd, I was like a fish without water, and I think my performance suffered because of how nervous I was.
Phrases and Idioms
Interested in sports related phrases? Glance at this sports phrases list then and learn their meanings!