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I heard it in The Big Lebowski movie, when Walter yells at Donny, "shut the fuck up, Donny"; then he exclaims, "You're out of your element!".

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General reference: specific quote and the phrase in general. –  Lynn Dec 2 '11 at 23:31
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i am a programmer and i saw this question in stack overflow,so i quess here in english.SE i am out of my element,no ? –  Qchmqs Dec 3 '11 at 13:54
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up vote 13 down vote accepted

The references given in a comment (in thefreedictionary and urbandictionary) suggest the meaning, "to feel unhappy or strange because you are in a situation that you are not familiar with", but provide no sense of why it should mean that. It is a reference to classical elements, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire; as, for example, a fish out of water is out of its element.

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+1 "A fish out of water" is a great example of the literal and intended meaning. –  Andrew Lambert Dec 2 '11 at 23:43
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Someone's "element" refers to their bailiwick of expertise or comfort. A doctor might be in her element in the operating room but out of her element in a garage.

The quote from The Big Lebowski can be interpreted as "This situation is not something you are comfortable or qualified to deal with."

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