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Do the phrases "Fish in a barrel" and "Sitting ducks" convey the same thing?

In my opinion, they have the same tone and express something to be an easy target.

Eg: Out there, they are just fish in a barrel.

Out there, they are sitting ducks.

Can they be used interchangeably or are there some differences in their usage?

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There's no significant difference, but I suspect statistics might well show the simile/metaphor difference in your two examples is actually more likely to be the other way around. But that doesn't really mean anything. –  FumbleFingers Feb 7 '13 at 14:58
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@FumbleFingers you should add the simile/metaphor difference as an answer. Getting upvotes would be like shooting fish in a barrel. –  rajah9 Feb 7 '13 at 16:01
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I have never heard an expression like "they are fish in a barrel." I've always heard it "like shooting fish in a barrel." Which incidentally is your distinction. –  jhocking Feb 7 '13 at 18:10
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A quick Google search for "fish in a barrel -shoot -shooting" doesn't actually return an idiomatic result on the first page; "they are just fish in a barrel" must be extremely rare if it's used at all. –  Michael Edenfield Feb 7 '13 at 20:13
    
I agree that just using "fish in a barrel" is somewhat rare but not completely unheard of. In the Avengers(2012) movie, Capt. Steve Rogers says "They're like fish in a barrel down there." regarding some civilians during the War of New York. –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 9:05

6 Answers 6

up vote 51 down vote accepted

Yes they are similar, but not interchangeable

The wording is

It is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: ridiculously easy

and

They are like sitting ducks: someone or something vulnerable to attack

So you would say - Making them look stupid is like shooting fish in a barrel e.g. you are actively hunting them versus

The noobs are like sitting ducks in this flame war e.g they have made themselves an easy target

In your case:

Look at them out there: Like sitting ducks

or

Look at them out there, getting at them would be like shooting fish in a barrel

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I think if there's a distinction, it's so fine most native speakers don't really make it. In any case, to the extent that the usages are different, it's more that fish in a barrel tends to be explicitly used as a simile (with "like"), whereas sitting ducks is more likely to be a metaphor (using "are"). –  FumbleFingers Feb 7 '13 at 14:55
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@mplungjan is right, the two do not mean the same thing at all. An effortless task vs. a situation of vulnerability: these are not interchangeable concepts. I completely disagree that native speakers don't distinguish them. –  Curtis Feb 7 '13 at 18:31
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the incomplete metaphor "Out there, they are just fish in a barrel." is homologous to the other incomplete metaphor... but this poster is correct in that in context of the complete metaphor they are related but distinct concepts. –  Grady Player Feb 7 '13 at 19:05
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I would add to this - fish in a barrel are captive, so given enough time and bullets you can't fail. Sleeping ducks could easily escape if they are alerted, so they're only vulnerable right now. "The enemy were like sleeping ducks" means that the enemy could be your equal in other circumstances. "The enemy were like fish in a barrel" means that they never stood a chance. –  Keith Feb 8 '13 at 9:17
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@Keith It is sitting ducks, and they made themselves vulnerable by not flying. I would never use the expression "they are like fish in a barrel" instead I would use "getting at them was like shooting fish in a barrel" –  mplungjan Feb 8 '13 at 9:31

While they are similar, "Fish in a barrel" tends more towards the mindset of the predator: many opportunities for easy gain.

"Sitting ducks" tends more towards mindset of the prey: they are unaware that they are being stalked.

EDIT: Added Calvin and Hobbes comic strip Shooting fish in a barrel

Calvin can say that dropping a snowball on Susie is "like shooting fish in a barrel" because it's both easy for him to target her and difficult for him to miss her. This is the predator's point of view.

Before Calvin drops the snowball, Calvin (and the reader) would call Susie "a sitting duck." However, Susie does not know that she is vulnerable at this stage. She could not say, "I'm a sitting duck." Nor could she say, "I'm a fish in a barrel."

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Useful distinction. –  FumbleFingers Feb 7 '13 at 17:58
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Exactly. Although I'd disagree with the 'unaware' bit though. You can say "I was a sitting duck" (I was vulnerable, and aware of it), but not "I was a fish in a barrel". –  Steve Bennett Feb 8 '13 at 5:18
    
Consider these statements: "Look at them out there, like fish in a barrel" and "Look at them out there, like sitting ducks". Now wouldn't both these statements be from the perspective of a predator? –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 9:15
    
Of course you can express both of these phrases from the hunter's point of view. That's why I said "tends more toward." As others have noted, you have shortened the phrase. It's "like shooting fish in a barrel." The shooting is clearly from the predator's point of view. @SteveBennett pointed out that you can say, "I was a sitting duck," but not "I was a fish in a barrel." This is because "sitting duck" talks about the unawareness of the prey. –  rajah9 Feb 8 '13 at 13:51

As @rajah9 pointed out, the statements are at opposite spectrums in terms of predator/prey.

One could use "sitting duck" when referring to someone else or themself. No one would ever say, I'm the fish in a barrel that someone is shooting into.

To me, that distinction keeps the two expressions completely different and not interchangeable.

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Consider these statements: "Look at them out there, like fish in a barrel" and "Look at them out there, like sitting ducks". Now wouldn't both these statements be from the perspective of a predator? –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 9:16
    
@KeyBrdBasher before seeing your Avengers quote I would have said that no native speaker would ever produce "Look at them out there, like fish in a barrel". But I suppose I should know better than to make absolute statements about English usage. It still doesn't sound at all natural to me, though. –  AakashM Feb 8 '13 at 10:05
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@KeyBrdBasher, I would assume anyone saying "look at them out there like fish in a barrel" was mixing their metaphors. No one who understands the "fish in a barrel" expression would say that. The "fish in a barrel" expression is about how easy something is, not about how vulnerable the fish are. –  Kristina Lopez Feb 8 '13 at 10:43
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Ah, vulnerability! I think I am on to it now. –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 13:51

While both use a metaphor of hunting, "sitting ducks" implies that someone is being actively aggressive towards the target (the duck), while "shooting fish in a barrel" implies only that a task is easy, not necessarily that the subject (the shooter) has a specific target or is even being aggressive.

I could say "doing that crossword puzzle was like shooting fish in a barrel" but I wouldn't say "that crossword was a sitting duck" — unless I wanted to absurdly and humorously imply that I did the puzzle aggressively and dominantly.

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I think your answer is in direct contradiction with mplungjan's answer. He considers "fish in a barrel", being actively hunted. –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 9:19
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De idiomum non disputandum est! :-) –  Alex Chaffee Feb 8 '13 at 15:15

I'd suggest they're discussing a similar idea but are certainly not identical.

The newbies were sitting ducks on the forum, but trolling them would be too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

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Good example but certainly not a comprehensive answer. –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 11 '13 at 4:56

A "sitting duck" is used to describe someone or something that has no idea that he/it is vulnerable. While "Fish in a barrel" is used to describe something that is trapped in an enclosed area and therefor an easy target. Both are considered "easy targets", but the circumstances for each are slightly different.

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"A "sitting duck" is used to describe someone or something that *has no idea* that he/it is vulnerable." I certainly disagree with that! What about when people say that they themselves are sitting ducks? Would you consider them to be unaware of their vulnerability? –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 8 '13 at 9:21
    
IF they say that they themselves are sitting ducks, then obviously they know that they are vulnerable, but choose not to flee. Most of the time its used to describe something that has no idea, such as a duck that is sitting and not flying away. –  Jonathon Brown Feb 8 '13 at 15:43

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