"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.
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.
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.