What does "If wishes were fishes we'd all swim in riches" mean?

This phrase doesn't make any sense to me, though I do understand the point it's making. But by the logic of the phrase, if a wish were a fish, why would we all just be swimming with the fishes?

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    Logically, it doesn't make any sense, though. It doesn't follow that if wishes were fish, the oceans would be riches—or that we’d be swimming anywhere if we made a fish every time we made a wish. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 '14 at 8:06
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    “If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets.” --― Frank Herbert, The Dune Storybook goodreads.com/quotes/… Also, If wishes were fishes and cattle were kings, the world would be full of wonderful things "According to my source, Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs, pg 637, it really goes back further to, If wishes were thrushes beggers would eat birds. That was in 1605, ..." doctoroz.com/blog/bill-larson/if-wishes-were-fishes – Kris Jul 24 '14 at 8:38
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    "if wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets." makes sense to me. It's the reference to swimming in riches that throws me off. "if wishes were instantly granted, we'd all swim in riches" makes sense, but if a 'wish' were transformed to a fish, why the hell would WE be swimming... you're right, we'd be casting! – noobynoobnoob Jul 24 '14 at 9:01
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    Huh? Of course it makes sense. "swimming in riches" is a general phrases to mean "be rich". The fact that fish (in the first clause) literally "swim", is the clever play. – Fattie Jul 24 '14 at 11:55
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    I'm surprised at all the comment and answers citing the 'if fishes were wishes..' as being Scottish. I've never heard it despite spending the greater part of my life to date in Scotland. Perhaps that's down to parental units being Lancastrian. The version in our house was 'if wishes were horses then beggars might ride.' – Spagirl Aug 29 '16 at 10:58

If wishes were fishes: used to express the impossibility to make a wish come true.

It appears to come from and to be a variant of:

It actually comes or was borrowed from the not so commonly used, original nursery rhyme from Scotland:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,

If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.

If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans

There would be no need for tinker’s hands!

Source: (www.doctoroz.com)

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    If think it's "ifs and ans" - an being an archaic synonym for if. "Ands" makes no sense here. – James McLeod Jul 24 '14 at 10:04
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    "the impossibility to make a wish come true." completely wrong. It is an admonishment against "dreaming" or "hoping" or "wishing" versus "actually working". (Note BTW that it's a commonplace that "wishes come true" .. there is no impossibility about wishes coming true; and the phrase is not about that (which would be incorrect).) – Fattie May 4 '15 at 12:51
  • @JamesMcLeod do you have a cite for 'an' being a synonym for 'if'? I can't find anything here dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/sndns96 – Spagirl Aug 29 '16 at 10:54
  • See thefreedictionary.com/an, definition #2 – James McLeod Aug 29 '16 at 11:23
  • Thank you@JamesMcLeod I was off tangent looking at specifically Scottish sources. – Spagirl Aug 29 '16 at 11:51

This is (of course!) a Scottish saying: basically the point is wishes are useless. Or more simply: "Shut up and work harder." It's that simple.

(The second part of the phrase can be anything. "If wishes were fishes we wouldn't have to work" or simply "If wishes were fishes we'd all be rich." Or it might be specific to your situation ... "If wishes were fishes we wouldn't have to drive these damn trucks for a living!")

Anyone who grows up Scottish is frequently told, "I cried when I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet" and "If wishes were fishes..." and other gems such as "shut up and work harder".

It is an admonishment if you are lazy. It expresses the pointless futility of "wishing" for something. It's simply saying: "if silly wishes/prayers/dreams/hopes were real, we'd all be rich. So, shut up and start working."

Note that as spagirl points out there are any number of variations of the phrase, with no connection at all to fish. Example: "if wishes were horses then beggars would ride".


It means that there are a lot of fish about and it isn't hard to catch one. So if wishes were as common as fishes, everyone would have a considerable amount of wishes and would presumably be as rich as they liked.


\Alissa George – Blogger initiate I looked up "If wishes were fishes, then all dreams would come true,” and this is the second site I’ve landed on. I've heard this phrase from my mother who heard it from her father who was Scott's-Irish and I don't see her phrase here: I understood it to be: "God helps those who help themselves" and an admonishment say, to a child, to not just be wishing and languishing and day-dreaming, but to set specific goals to achieve those wishes & dreams. There was always the hope that those dreams would come true – as some do! Also, to not expect everything that you “wish for” arbitrarily to come true or everything you wish for to become a reality, on a whim. Start working toward SPECIFIC concrete goals and back them up with step by step action. There are a lot of fish in the sea and you have to set your sights on a few and go for those specific dreams, or fish as it were!

  • quite right.... – Fattie Oct 19 '14 at 9:08

protected by tchrist Oct 21 '14 at 22:24

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