June 28, 2011
We’ve all used a fishy metaphor in the past, but use the wrong one and you can look pretty stupid (as in this question in a recent Washington Post online chat—though advice columnist Carolyn Hax was still able to figure out the correct species). So here’s a quick guide to finding the right fish for your metaphor:
Piranha: These small South American fish of the genus Serrasalmus are known for their voracious appetites, even resorting to cannibalism when times are tough. (But they’re not as violent as the movies might have you believe.) A human piranha is a competitive, ruthless predator.
Remora: The members of this family of fish are most often found attached to whales or big fish, feeding off their host’s leftovers. You may have one of these in your group of friends.
Shark: These fish have skeletons of cartilage and streamlined bodies and are among the scariest predators in the sea. Metaphorically, they’re often hustlers (think pool shark) or other kinds of greedy cheaters.
Pilot Fish: This species (Naucrates ductor) hangs out in warm ocean waters around sharks, rays and sea turtles feeding off their parasites and leftover bits. They’ve also been known to follow ships, which once led to the myth that they would play navigators for sailors who had lost their way. The phrase “pilot fish” has been used to refer to scavengers who accompany a larger threat, though Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast used the term for people who scouted out artists for rich people.
Goldfish: You might use this term for someone with a short memory, thinking that our fishy friends can’t remember anything beyond a few seconds. You’d be wrong, however. Goldfish have much longer memories and scientists (and the Mythbusters) have trained them.
Eel: There are hundreds of species of this finless fish, and many of them burrow into the ocean bottom in shallow waters. They look somewhat snakelike, though sea snakes are entirely different. Call someone an eel, you mean that they’re slippery.
Barracuda: These large, elongated fish have fang-like teeth, similar to the piranha. Metaphorically, a barracuda is like a piranha, too, a predator in the office.
Clownfish: Clownfish are one half of a classic case of mutualism with sea anemones (the fish eat small invertebrates that could harm the anemones; the anemones protect the clownfish from bigger predators). There should be some kind of metaphor in this relationship, but the term clownfish can mean so many different things (someone who is a joke, someone who lacks self-respect, etc.), that’s its probably best avoided for something clearer.
Whale: They’re not fish, and so this metaphor is left for another day.
What fishy metaphors have I missed? Tell me in the comments.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.