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What Does a "Big Fish in a Small Pond" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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The colorful idiom "big fish in a small pond" refers to a situation in which an individual is very prominent within a relatively confined area or situation. This type of situation may exist in a number of settings, and usually implies that if the individual were to move into other circumstances that encompassed a wider area or setting, he or she would not be quite as prominent. Used in a variety of settings ranging from social circles to placement within a company, or even a company within an industry, the term sometimes has to do with how the individual chooses to pursue his or her ambitions.

An example of a big fish in a small pond would be someone who grows up in a small town and chooses to build a life and career in that town, even though the individual could move to a metropolitan area and pursue the same type of career. In this scenario, staying in the small town where there is less competition increases the chances of gaining prominence in the local community. Should that individual move to a larger area where more people possessed similar skill sets, chances are that while it would be possible to earn a living, that individual would not enjoy the same high profile among his or her peers.

Companies can also be big fish in a small pond. When a company is the only one of its type within a limited geographic area, consumers tend to turn to that company for certain goods and services rather than traveling out of town in order to secure those products elsewhere. When this is the case, the company enjoys brisk business and a virtual monopoly in the local market. If that same business operation were to relocate to an area with a higher population and several different businesses that offered the same products, the company may continue to do well financially but would lose the high level of prominence enjoyed in the smaller community.

Being a big fish in a small pond can also translate into other areas of society. A leading family associated with a specific house of worship may exert considerable influence on how money is spent by the organization. Major investors in small companies may also exert a great deal of influence on how the company operates. Even in local neighborhoods, there is always the chance that one or two people will emerge as civic leaders, enjoying a degree of prominence that would not be possible if they lived in a larger community. While the term "big fish in a small pond" is sometimes used derisively, becoming a prominent part of a small community is nothing to be ashamed of; in many cases, those who rise to this level of prominence do so because their skills and talents are perceived as adding to the quality of life in the area, a trait that is always desirable.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Feb 16, 2014

@MrsPramm - I think the definition of a phrase like "a big fish in a small pond" lends itself to arrogance though. You would only really say it about someone who was struggling with the idea of no longer having that special status and I think it's usually used to describe people who once lorded it over others because of their ability (or maybe just because they happen to be higher on the social ladder).

By MrsPramm — On Feb 15, 2014

@Fa5t3r - I don't know. Being a big fish in a little pond isn't that bad as long as you are aware of what your circumstances are. It's nice to live in a small community where you know your place and you are valued for your abilities. There's nothing wrong with being the best baker in a neighborhood and enjoying that status. As long as you don't expect to be able to win international competitions in baking (or, at least, don't get bitter if you don't!) then I don't see the problem.

By Fa5t3r — On Feb 14, 2014

This kind of situation is often emphasized when the person moves on to something different. The classic example is a kid who is in the top of their class at high school, but realizes that they are not at the same level when compared to others at university. They become the small fish in a big pond, so to speak.

And, to be honest, I think it's very good for people to have this kind of shock to the system. It keeps you humble to know that there are always going to be other talented people out there, who can do what you do, or do other things better. It stops people from becoming arrogant and close-minded.

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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