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Big fish, small pond

I have recently heard the English expression “Big fish in a small pond”. Does anybody know what this means? Can anybody think of an example of one?

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big influence over a small area

Anonymous September 10, 2004, 3:05pm

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Not quite what Anonymous said, unless there is some variant with which I'm unfamiliar.

A "big fish in a small pond" generally refers to a "big" person (e.g. in terms of their talent or status) in a "small" place or situation, e.g. one that is beneath their status.

So, for example, if Bill Gates were to be found servicing computers in a corner store, you'd say he was a "big fish in a small pond," or if you saw Al Pacino appearing in a performance by your local amateur dramatics society.

Dave September 11, 2004, 9:47am

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I am more familiar with what Anonymous was trying to say. In the (business) uses I've seen, it means having a big company in a niche industry. It tends to be used somewhat like "it's better to be a big fish in a small pond than another fish in the sea". So, it's better to be the leader of the fold-up bike industry than an also-ran in the generic bike industry.

pain September 13, 2004, 1:42pm

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I agree more with Dave on this one, but I believe all these explanations are correct. I have most often heard the phrase used when referring to something that has been outgrown, or is too small or demeaning. For example, a typical English conversation:

"I'm in my last year of college, so I'm just about to leave and go to university," explained Jane.

Bob nodded and said, "Oh, so you're like a big fish in a small pond at the moment. University will be very different."

In this case, the college is the 'small pond' has been 'outgrown' by Jane, the 'big fish'.

Anonymous' explanation applies, because Jane probably has more influence than the rest of the college students, and over a smaller area (college being smaller than the university).

Dave's explanation also applies, because now Jane is too learned to stay at college - staying there wouldn't adequately reflect her capacity for learning and amount of knowledge.

My opinion, of course, but I hope it helps.

Cymen September 19, 2004, 1:39pm

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I've lived in a small town for several years and I've heard this expression applied in situations where a man had great influence in the small community, but if he were to be in bigger city, he wouldn't have that same influence.

For example, a man started his own heating / air conditioning repair company. He had 4 locations and a fleet of 10 trucks. He was a prominent businessman in the community and his business netted $1 million per year. In a town of 25,000 people, he was in the top 1% of incomes and because he brought so much money into the community, he had a certain leverage with the city council. They would be very careful to allow building permits near his businesses without checking with him first.

However, if that man moved to a large city, for example: New York City, then 4 locations, 10 trucks, $1 million / year would not be special at all. For a small town (pond), he had a big business (he was a big fish), but in a large lake (New York City), he was a much smaller business (much smaller fish) by comparison.

Conversely, I've not heard this expression applied to outgrowing circumstance. At least it's not a common usage to me, but the usage does depend on context. There are benefits and detriments to being a big fish in a small pond.

Kurt September 20, 2004, 10:07am

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Just can't resist:

There is a "Simpsons" episode which summed it up very nicely, I thought:
One day Lisa, the eternal second-grader, is promoted to third grade. Instead of knowing more than everybody like she's used to, she suddenly finds herself behind the others in most subjects. It's more challenging, but far less "cozy" than before. In the end, she's asked if she'd like to stay and deal with the higher demands or to "return to second grade and be merely a big fish in a small pond", to which she enthusiastically replies "Big fish, big fish!"

MM December 4, 2004, 12:39am

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Hey, whatever it means, I have a mini website with that name, showing off a few photos of a recent New Zealand holiday. Enjoy!

in February 4, 2006, 6:22pm

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I have to agree with Peter Cooper and Kurt. It doesn't necessarily have any negative connotation. More often it involves a personal choice, each with its own advantages. Having more influence in a smaller town, company etc. can seem more personally rewarding than getting lost in a sea of anonymity. On the other hand, there may be more resources, opportunites, and excitement in the bigger pond.

porsche February 5, 2006, 7:30pm

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Its mean mighty in Small Area. It's better to be a lion in small jungle than cat in huge Forest.

Hamlet January 5, 2013, 8:25pm

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A bit late perhaps, but I'm with pain, porsche and Hamlet on this one, in that the expression is often heard with "better", or is about choice - Law for Dummies asks, "Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond", for example, would you prefer to be a partner in a small local practice, or an assistant in a large multinational law firm. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Warsaw Will January 5, 2013, 10:13pm

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