What Does Give a Man a Fish Mean?

It’s a bit of wisdom you’ve likely been told many times in your life: Give a man a fish… But what does it really mean? Should you go around handing out aquatic animals to everyone you meet?! Not so fast. Keep reading for the definition of this popular proverbial phrase.

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What Does Give a Man a Fish Mean?

Give a man a fish is actually a shortened form of a longer phrase: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. You may hear or see a few different variations of the longer form, as well as sometimes also see or hear it shortened to teach a man to fish. But whatever the exact wording, the meaning is the same: It can be better—more beneficial or more helpful—to teach someone how to do something rather than to just do it for them. 

Of course, the expression uses fish to illustrate its point: If a hungry man doesn’t have food and you give him a fish, that’s helpful, to be sure. Yet, his hunger has only been satisfied right then and there; he will eat for a day. If you teach him to fish, however, he can then (at least theoretically; more below) go out and catch as much food as he needs whenever he needs it—for a lifetime—and not have to depend on someone else coming along and giving him something to eat. But although the expression features fish and fishing, it can be used any time the intended meaning is that it might be better in the long term for someone to learn a skill than simply to receive handouts, or what they need in the short term.

Here are some example sentences, and other non-food-related instances, using the expression give a man a fish:

  • I swear, my mom calls me for help working her phone every single day. I always answer, but I also tell her she should really read the manual or even take a class so she is comfortable using it on her own and doesn’t need me. Yet she never does. I think next time she calls I’m just going to tell her as she told me when I was little, “Give a man a fish!”
  • My husband gets so frustrated trying to work our new oven that I always end up just doing it for him. But I need to remember that saying “give a man a fish.” After all, what will he do for meals when I go out of town?!
  • Last week, my boss sat me down and said it was time to give a man a fish: She did a full training on the new software so I wouldn’t have to keep asking her for help. This week, we’ve both had more free time and things have been running smoother at the office. 

The Etymology of the Expression

As is the case with may you live in interesting times, this phrase is often said to be of ancient Chinese origin, and specifically attributed to the philosopher Lao-Tzu, but there’s a lack of proof that it’s connected with China or actually even all that old. In fact, it appears to date to Britain in the mid-19th century. 

The author Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of satirical novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, seems to be correctly credited with coining the phrase. She included a version of the saying in her 1885 novel titled Mrs. Dymond

“He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes.”

Clearly, the expression morphed over time into the one we now know and use. No one is certain exactly when and where the idea that the saying is an ancient Chinese proverb originated; however, various newspaper articles over the years have spread this misinformation. 

The expression is also sometimes attributed to the philosopher Maimonides, who lived from 1138 to 1204. Although he did write about charity, and specifically about preventing poverty by teaching a person a trade, there doesn’t seem to be good evidence he wrote or said a version of the phrase as we know and use it today.

What Is a Proverb?

The expression give a man a fish is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Discover many more proverbs and other common sayings here.

Although proverbs are thought to express a universal principle, it is important to note here that not everyone believes in the truth, or at least the full truth, of this phrase, especially when it is applied to the concept of helping those who are poor and struggling to get on their feet. Continuing the metaphor, its challengers point out that a person might have difficulty learning to fish when they are hungry, and that not everyone has equal access to equipment like fishing poles, clean and well-stocked fishing ponds or streams, and places to cook the fish that they catch.

Summary

The saying give a man a fish is the short form of the longer proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Both forms are used to indicate that it might be more helpful to teach someone a skill so they know how to do it themselves whenever they need, rather than having to rely on someone to do it for them over and over. Although it is often said to be an ancient Chinese proverb, there’s no proof that’s the case. In fact, it appears to date to the late 1880s and a British author named Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie.