Flies on the wall and fish out of water: animal idioms, part 2

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by Kate Woodford

This week we return to animal idioms, starting with the humble – and often irritating! – fly. Though small in size, the fly appears in a surprisingly large number of common idioms. To describe someone who is very gentle and who never offends or hurts others, you might say they wouldn’t hurt a fly:

I don’t believe Molly did that. She wouldn’t hurt a fly!

If a lot of people are getting ill or dying at the same time, you might say informally they are dropping like flies:

I’ve never seen an outbreak of flu like this one. People are dropping like flies!

If you would like to witness what people say or do in a particular situation without being seen, you might say you would love to be a fly on the wall:

Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when Lucy tells Emily her news?

A thing that spoils a situation that would otherwise be very good is sometimes referred to as a fly in the ointment. (‘Ointment’ is a cream used as a medicine.):

It’s a beautiful house. The only fly in the ointment is that the dishwasher is broken and leaks water everywhere.

Fish also are used in quite a few idioms. Someone who feels uncomfortable in a situation that they are not used to may be described as a fish out of water:

I had nothing in common with these people. I felt like a fish out of water.

People sometimes try to comfort a person whose relationship has recently ended by saying there are plenty more fish in the sea (UK)/there are plenty of fish in the sea (US), meaning that there are many more people with whom they might have a relationship:

You may not want to hear this now but, you know, there are plenty more fish in the sea.

If someone chooses not to do a particular thing because they have something more important to do instead, you might say they have bigger/other fish to fry:

James turned down our job offer. I suspect he has bigger fish to fry.

Meanwhile, a person who has a lot of power and influence over a small area of activity may be described as a big fish in a small pond:

Luke could move on to bigger things but I think he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond.

The male cow – the bull – also features in two fairly common idioms. If you start to deal with something difficult in a brave and determined way, you may be said to take the bull by the horns:

I thought it was time to take the bull by the horns so I told him his actions were unacceptable.

Someone who approaches a situation with great energy and enthusiasm but does not seem to care about what their actions will do is sometimes said to be like a bull in a china shop:

She went into the meeting like a bull in a china shop, upsetting both Tom and Maria.

Next month we’ll be looking at frequent bird and pig idioms, amongst others.


15 thoughts on “Flies on the wall and fish out of water: animal idioms, part 2

  1. Karen Walsh

    One I particularly love is, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. I cannot recall the origin however.

  2. Satyakam

    Found the idioms very useful.. ability to use them in appropriate situation will be the icing on the pie.

  3. Simonetta

    We use elephant in a glassware shop instead of a bull in a China shop … variations to express the same behaviour or conduct ( a bit Tricky Words, aren’t they? )
    Saluti dall’ Italia

    1. Kate Woodford

      Simonetta, I love that variant – thank you! I think it’s even more descriptive than the bull in the china shop!

  4. Osama Hassan

    amazing information, i enjoyed reading and laughing at some of these idioms .
    way to go, and thanks for you

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