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Are You a ‘Big Fish in a Small Pond'?

In this Oct. 8, 2010 photo, Matt Balazik gets ready to throw a 70-lb Atlantic sturgeon into the James River near Charles City, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
In this Oct. 8, 2010 photo, Matt Balazik gets ready to throw a 70-lb Atlantic sturgeon into the James River near Charles City, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Are You a ‘Big Fish in a Small Pond’?
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And now Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On today’s show we talk about an idiom involving fish and a pond. A pond is a small body of water. It is usually smaller than a lake.

And our idiom today is “to be a big fish in a small pond.”

“A big fish in a small pond” describes a person who is very well known or important in a small group but is not known or important outside that small group.

For example, a high-performing high school student in a small town could be a big fish in a small pond. He may feel overly-confident or overly-important, or he may simply not know how small his “pond” is -- until he moves on to a big university.

He must compete with hundreds of students who were also the best at their high schools. His pond just got a much larger and is now filled with many more fish.

Here is another example.

A young singer was famous in her small town. She wanted to move to a big city to grow her singing career. Her close friends and family supported her but also warned her. Here in our small town, they said, you are a big fish in a small pond. Once you move to New York City, that is going to change. Best be ready!

For some people, this can be a painful realization – sometimes called a wake-up call.

Sometimes when we use the expression “a big fish in a small pond,” we add words to better describe the fish and the pond. For example, the singer’s friends could say that she will be a very small but talented fish in a very big competitive pond.

Now, some people like being a big fish in a small pond. They never grow their circle of friends or work environment. Sometimes they do not take opportunities that increase their environment, or pond. By staying in a small pond, it is safer. There are fewer dangers and also fewer competitors.

The Meriam-Webster online dictionary says that the expression “big fish” has been slang for an important or influential person since the early 1800s. The addition of “in a small pond” -- to mean an unimportant organization -- is more recent.

The dictionary goes on to explain another way to use the idiom “a big fish in a small pond.” It can also describe a situation in which one person has more power, influence, knowledge, or experience than others within a small group.

So, sometimes we use this expression to describe people in an insulting way. We are saying that they want to stay in a small pond just to feel more important. Their position of authority is not questioned by the other fish in the pond.

And that’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. Until next time, I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

idiom – n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but must be learned as a whole

pond – n. a body of water usually smaller than a lake

confident – adj. having or showing sureness and optimism

wake-up call – n. something that serves to alert a person to a problem, danger, or need

opportunity – n. a good chance for advancement or progress

slang – n. very informal words used by a group of people

authority – n. power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior