This expression is commonly used as a simile as it is more often than not preceded by the word “like.” To find out more about why this phrase is used read below!
This expression is used to denote that someone is in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation. It can be used in a variety of different contexts but one example could be when starting a new job a person may be described as being “like a fish out of water” as they do not yet know the ropes and how things work.
The first recorded usage of this expression dates to the year 1483 in a work by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer which reads “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.”
The idea behind this expression is said to be the well-known fact that a fish cannot survive unless it is in water as when it is taken out it begins to squirm and flop about in an attempt to find their way back to water. In this same sense when a human is in an uncomfortable situation their instinct is often also to attempt to find their way back to more familiar surroundings.
An example of this phrase can be found in a quote by English dramatist Thomas Shadwell. It reads “I am, out of ladies’ company, like a fish out of water.”