1. To have the memory of a goldfish
Figurative meaning: To have a very poor memory; to forget quickly.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the idea that goldfish have very short memories.
Example: “He’s always forgetting my birthday. I swear he has the memory of a goldfish!”
Other forms: To have a goldfish’s memory
2. A red herring
Figurative meaning: A piece of information or suggestion introduced into an argument in order to draw attention away from the real facts of the situation.
Literal meaning: A red herring is a kind of fish that smells very strong when smoked and was once used to mislead hunting dogs and put them off the scent by dragging it across the trail.
Example: “The police were following a red herring, but now they’re on the right track.
3. A small fry
Figurative meaning: Unimportant people.
Literal meaning: A small fry is a newly hatched fish. So, in terms of fishing catching small fry is unimportant, when you’re actually after the big fish.
Example: “The police thing arresting drug addicts is small fry. They’re chasing the large-scale drug dealers!”
4. A big fish
Figurative meaning: A boss or a leader (often related to criminal organisations).
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the idea that large fish are in charge and boss smaller fish around, i.e. sharks.
Example: “The police weren’t interested in arresting small fry drug addicts, and instead wanted to catch the big fish drug dealers.
5. There are plenty of other fish in the sea
Figurative meaning: There are plenty of other choices. (Mostly used to refer to people).
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the fact that if you have or catch a fish that you’re not happy with don’t worry because there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
Example: “Her boyfriend broke up with her last week, but I told her, “Don’t worry. There are plenty of other fish in the see.”
6. A different kettle of fish
Figurative meaning: A very different matter or issue from the one previously mentioned.
Literal meaning: This phrase’s origin dates back to the early 1700s and the literal meaning that it originated is uncertain. Maybe think of it in that if you’re out fishing and you put the fish you’ve caught in a kettle, every kettle of fish you collect is likely to be different from the last one.
Example: “Compared to car racing, horse racing is a completely different kettle of fish.”
Other forms: Another kettle of fish.
7. Off the hook
Figurative meaning: Relieved of one’s duty, burden, responsibility, or pressure.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to a fish getting out of trouble by getting off a fishing hook he was caught on.
Example: “The police officer said this time you’re off the hook and don’t have to pay the speeding fine.”
8. To open a can of worms
Figurative meaning: To create a situation that will be unpleasant or cause a lot of trouble.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to how fisherman used to buy cans of live worms as bait when they went fishing. If they opened the can of worms and left it unattended for a time the worms would start coming out and escaping causing a problem for the fisherman.
Example: “When the US forces invaded Iraq they opened a huge can of worms.”
9. Hook, line and sinker
Figurative meaning: A situation where someone accepts or believes something straight away without a second thought.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the idea that a fish has been so intent on swallowing the bait that they have also swallowed the fishing line and the sinker as well.
Example: “The conman’s story was so convincing his victims swallowed the lie hook, line, and sinker.”
Other forms: To swallow something hook, line, and sinker.
10. To be hooked on something
- To be addicted to a drug or something similar.
- To be very enthusiastic or supportive of something, e.g. a sport.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the idea that when a fish takes a bait it gets hooked on the hook and can’t escape.
- “Shortly after he started using heroin he became hooked on it.”
- “He is totally hooked on Australia rules footy! He watches every match on TV.”
11. To reel someone in
Figurative meaning: To attract someone or something.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to how fishermen reel in fish that get caught on their fishing lines.
Example: “I can tell Anna has a crush on me. Now all I have to do is reel her in!”
12. To hit a snag
Figurative meaning: To run into an unexpected problem or difficulty.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to when a fisherman’s hook is caught on a snag, e.g. a log or a rock under water, and he can’t reel in his line. Obviously, if you’re trying to fish then getting snagged can be a big problem.
Example: “We’ve hit a bit of a snag with the building project when we ran out of funding.”
13. Packed in like sardines
Figurative meaning: To squeeze in as many things or people as possible.
Literal meaning: This phrase alludes to the way in which sardines are packed into tin cans, squeezed in tightly against one another.
Example: “The bus had so many people on it they were packed in like sardines.”
Other forms: To pack something or someone in like sardines.