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What Does "Gone Fishing" Mean?

Jim B.
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Gone fishing" is an English idiom that is used in reference to someone who is completely unaware of all that is going on in his or her immediate surroundings. The person described in this manner has checked out from reality and may be daydreaming of just simply ignorant of the people and things in the vicinity. In other cases, the term can be used to describe someone who has taken an opportunity to get away from the rigors of daily life. This expression first found footing in America in the 20th century and is taken from the signs commonly placed on local store windows indicating that the shopkeepers weren't around to do business.

There are times in the English language when certain words or phrases are used that have a different meaning than their literal definitions. This is because they have been used in certain situations or circumstances for so long that their meanings evolve. Such phrases are called idioms, and these idioms are useful in spicing up everyday speech.

In its most literal sense, this phrase refers to someone who has consciously removed himself from a situation. When the stress of modern life becomes a bit too much, an idyllic retreat can be just what is needed to regain a sense of calm. As a result, some people may take some time away from their routines to find a brief bit of relaxation, and this expression represents those getaways. For example, "I've worked hard all week and I need a break, so if anyone asks, I'm gone fishing."

There are some occasions when the person who is described in this manner has mentally checked out of a situation without even knowing it. Perhaps the pressures of life caused this involuntary retreat, or maybe the person in question has just blanked out for a moment. As an example, consider the sentence, "He just stares off into the distance when you talk to him; it's like he's gone fishing."

Back in the days when local shops could be run by just one person, it was common for the owner and proprietor of such a business to take a day off to go to the local fishing hole. In those instances, the owner would place a sign on the door to say that he'd gone, indicating that the shop was closed. That is the likely origin of the phrase, which gained traction in America thanks to some popular songs that contained the phrase.

Is Gone Fishing An Idiom?

One of the most interesting English idioms is the phrase, gone fishing. However, by most accounts, the term is almost always written as gone fishin’ with the clipped ending missing the -g. Gone fishing is the most complex kind of idiom, and it retains a literal meaning in context and has multiple different symbolic meanings. Talk about versatility.

What Is an Idiom?

One of the most complicated parts of mastering the nuances of any language usage is idioms. Idioms are expressions or phrases used in common, everyday speech by native speakers of that language. If you haven’t been a speaker of a particular language since birth, you are likely outside of the cultural implications of phrases like idioms. Further, idioms are often region-bound. Even if you are a native English speaker, idioms are not the same in the United States in Great Britain. Even within the United States, different areas can have different meanings behind idioms.

Why Are Idioms Tricky?

One of the most complex parts of the nature of idioms is their ability to retain a literal meaning while also generating different figurative meanings. This aspect of idioms is called formulaic language; in essence, the literal meaning is still attached in context, but there are also symbolic meanings in other contexts. Imagine learning a new language and trying to pin down idioms at the same time!

What Does Gone Fishing Mean?

The meaning of gone fishing or fishin’ truly depends on who you ask and what context it is being used. The phrase's origin sheds some light on the literal meaning and how the figurative meanings were derived.

Origin Story

Many years ago, shops would often be run by only one shopkeeper. The shopkeeper’s job would be to run the shop he owned and bring home some kind of food for his wife to prepare for dinner. In many small towns, commerce was not booming like it was in big cities, and there were not many fresh markets with different kinds of meats at all times of the year. To combat food scarcity, everyone in the town would utilize the nearby waterways to fish for their food. The shopkeepers were no different.

Once every day or so, they would hang a sign on the door to let customers know that they were not in the shop and had gone fishing instead. This practice was acceptable for two reasons. One, because everyone had to do it for survival, and they understood the necessity. Two, because before noon is the only genuinely acceptable time to fish to get any good returns on your time investment. Thus, the sign on the door read gone fishin’ to let everyone know that no one was available inside.

Figurative Applications

The primary basis for the figurative application is three-fold. One basis suggests that there is no one in the shop, and the other means someone is not in the shop then they should be. Another lays the groundwork for leaving your one obligation to try and fish for something else.

No One in the Shop

The symbolic application that applies to the ‘no one in the shop’ foundation is quite derogatory. When someone describes someone else as gone fishing, they likely suggest that the person’s brain function is lacking. Further, that the shop, referring to the head of the person, is empty. This suggestion means that they are purporting the person has no brain or that their brain has gone elsewhere.

Not in the Shop When They Should Be

Have you ever shown up to a store or a business only to find that they were closed during regular hours? Perhaps, the restaurant you love was unexpectedly closed for your reservation, or your uncle wasn’t answering the phone at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In these instances, you might huff and puff and complain to your partner that it looks like they’ve gone fishing. While the literal explanation is certainly not that the entire restaurant or your uncle Joe has gone fishing, the term applies because it has lasted the years over as a practical figurative explanation for an unexplained absence.

Fishing for Something Else

This figurative derivation is also derogatory in its application. To describe a person in a relationship as gone fishin’ is to say that they are out looking to catch more than just dinner. The basis of this idiom is that the shop is closed, and the person is supposed to be getting dinner, but they are out fishing for a catch with no other explanation when dinner is already on the table. When someone in a relationship has gone fishin’, they either need therapy or a new partner.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Mar 08, 2021

I think that "gone fishing" has similar meaning to wool-gathering, or zoning out. Am I correct?

By anon353177 — On Oct 28, 2013

I need help with meaning of this idiom; "The one who goes fishing, will hunt." How do I interpret that? Thanks

By SZapper — On Sep 05, 2012

@eidetic - Those two phrases are pretty similar, and I've definitely heard them used interchangeable. I personally like "gone fishing" a little bit better, because it really conveys how much the person isn't paying attention to whatever is going on.

Going out to lunch is just temporary, but if you go fishing, usually you're gone for a couple of days!

By eidetic — On Sep 04, 2012

When the phrase "gone fishing" is used to mean someone has mentally checked out of the conversation, I think it's similar to the phrase "out to lunch." When you say someone is "out to lunch" it also means they've mentally checked out of the conversation, as if they've actually gone away to have lunch (or go fishing, whatever the case may be.)

By Monika — On Sep 03, 2012

@JessicaLynn - I've seen those signs used as decoration too! That just goes to show you how entrenched that phrase is in every day English. Everyone knows what "gone fishing" means, even though it usually doesn't mean the person has actually gone fishing.

I think it's funny the phrase originated from it's literally meaning: people closing up shop and spending the day fishing. Now if a small business owner closes up shop for the day, they're more likely to stay home playing on the Internet or something!

By JessicaLynn — On Sep 03, 2012

@Perdido - I've never seen a "Gone Fishing" sign on a business, that's for sure. I have seen them in little wooden plaques in people's houses though. I usually see these in houses that have country themed decoration, and the plaque almost always has a painted picture of a man fishing on it.

By JackWhack — On Aug 20, 2012

@cloudel – This is one of my favorite idioms. None of my friends have ever actually been fishing, but sometimes, they do stare blankly ahead and appear to be absentminded.

To me, when we use this phrase among our group, it is even funnier than when people out in the country who go fishing all the time use it. It is just so random, and it always gets us giggling.

By cloudel — On Aug 19, 2012

I think that this idiom is funny when it refers to someone who has mentally left the building. This is because I know how fishermen behave while out in their fishing boats.

They sometimes go for hours without saying a word to each other. They always say that the quieter you are, the more likely you are to catch a fish. Fish are apparently scared away by voices.

My dad used to go fishing whenever he had so much on him that he just could not talk about it or think about it anymore. When there just didn't seem to be any solution to his problems, he checked out for awhile and went fishing, and he usually came back in a more peaceful frame of mind.

By Perdido — On Aug 19, 2012

I have never seen a “Gone Fishing” sign in my life. I live in the city, where everyone is always trying to make more money and get ahead, so taking time off to go fishing and letting everyone know about it is just unheard of here.

I think it would be really nice to be able to close up shop for a day and head out to the lake. However, I know that I need the money that I would lose by being closed. It's sad, but I doubt I will ever get to just spontaneously “go fishing.”

By StarJo — On Aug 18, 2012

I live in the South, and when business owners around here put up this sign, they leave the “g” off of the end. So, it reads, “Gone Fishin'.”

No one around here really pronounces the “g” at the end, anyway. We have certain quirks to our accent that are acceptable here, and sometimes, even our signage denotes those quirks.

We really don't see a whole lot of bigger businesses with “Gone Fishin'” signs, but they are popular with small grocery store owners and even a few cafe owners.

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
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