1. Like a stunned mullet
Figurative meaning: Looking dazed; stupefied; shocked; surprised; confused.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the stunned look on a recently caught fish, which has been hit and made unconscious.
Example: “Don’t just stand there like a stunned mullet. Come and help me do this!”
Note: This is a very Australian idiom.
2. Like shooting fish in a barrel
Figurative meaning: Incredibly easy.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the fact that shooting fish in a barrel, as opposed to in a river or the ocean, would be an incredibly easy way of catching fish.
Example: “Winning this race will be like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Figurative meaning: To seem highly suspicious.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the fact that fresh fish have no smell but stale or rotten fish do. So someone trying to sell you “fresh fish” that are very smelly is quite literally very “fishy”.
Example: “Don’t sign the lease to the house yet. Something seems a bit fishy about it.”
Other forms: To smell fishy.
4. Like a fish out of water
Figurative meaning: To appear to be completely out of place; to be very awkward.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the fact that fish are at home in their natural environment, in water, whereas if you were to put one on land it would be completely out of place and awkward.
Example: “I hate wearing suits and thus felt like a fish out of water in this tuxedo at their wedding.”
5. A big fish in a small pond
Figurative meaning: People who are important but just within their limited area of influence.
Often used in a negative way towards people who feel self-important and comfortable in their position, while the ‘small fish’ have a chance to become ‘big fish in a pond’.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the idea that big fish in small ponds are the biggest, strongest fish with all the control. Where, if the fish were to move to a larger pond he would risk no longer being in the to position.
Example: “John became store manager at 20 year old and has been in that position since. I think he just likes being a big fish in a small pond.”
Other forms: A small fish in a big pond (meaning the opposite).
6. Green around the gills
Figurative meaning: Appearing pale due to being ill, nervous or afraid.
Literal meaning: I imagine this phrase alludes to the fact that if you caught a fish that was green around the gills you’re assumption would be that it was sick, and you’d probably throw it back.
Example: “Before her job interview Jane was looking quite green around the gills.”
Other forms: White around the gills; pale around the gills.
7. To drink like a fish
Figurative meaning: To drink a lot, particularly in reference to alcohol.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the fact that fish live submerged in water and thus “drink” a lot. Although, the water they consume is mostly for getting oxygen and leaves through their gills.
Example: “Pete loves his beer. That guy can really drink like a fish.”
8. To fish for a compliment
Figurative meaning: To try to make someone praise you, often by criticising yourself in front of them.
Literal meaning: The idea here is that you say something that sets up someone else to be able to easily praise you, like putting bait on a hook to attract a fish to bite onto it.
Example: “Pete said he was awful at running even though came 3rd in the race. I think he was just fishing for a compliment.
Other forms: To fish for compliments.
9. To have other fish to fry
Figurative meaning: To have more important matters to attend to.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to someone can’t be bothered frying the smaller fish because they’re too busy frying care of the larger more important fish.
Example: “I’d love to stay here and argue with you but I have other fish to fry.”
Other forms: To have better fish to fry; to have bigger fish to fry.
10. Holy mackerel!
Figurative meaning: An expression of surprise.
Literal meaning: The origin of this phrase is unclear but is recorded as early as 1803 and may be a euphemism for “Holy Mary”, with “Mackerel” being a nickname for Catholics because they eat fish on Fridays.
Example: “Holy mackerel! That bus almost hit me as I was crossing the road!”