We have a Vietnamese idiom, "như cá nằm trên thớt" - literally, "like a fish on cutting board". My apology for the rough translation because I regard myself as an English learner who is above the average a bit. The meaning of the idiom is: implying a dangerous and almost unescapable situation in which a person's life or fate is in someone's hands and seriously threatened.

I have looked for a similar expression in the idioms section of thefreedictionary and other websites such as merriam-webster and the OED but they appear to have other expressions that are not related to the word "fish".

Is there an English version or a metaphor of the mentioned idiom?

Besides, many presume the Vietnamese idiom to be exactly identical to the Japanese one. However, they do have a slightly different meaning regarding their contexts.

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    I think it's worth mentioning that, as fishing is substantially less of the english speaking world's economy (and fish make up less of its diet), it stands to reason that fish-related idioms may not directly translate. Still, there's some pretty close ones listed below.
    – webbcode
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:12
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    This is very similar (but not certain if it's identical) to a carp on a cutting board... Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:57
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    @medica: is a carp a fish?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 20:22
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    @Mitch Is that a real question? Or am I missing a joke? My knowledge of biology is at the level where I can just about tell a birch tree from a walrus, and even I know that a carp is a fish. Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:33
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    @Mitch I think she meant she’s not certain whether this Vietnamese expression (‘like a fish on a cutting board’) is quite identical in meaning to the Japanese one linked to above (‘carp on a cutting board’), or whether the meanings are slightly different. The Japanese one contains an element of keeping calm in the face of danger, which (going by this question alone) the Vietnamese one does not seem to contain, so I would hazard that they are in fact not identical. Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:41

14 Answers 14


I would say like a lamb led to slaughter is the closest in meaning. The lamb is symbolic for its innocence. It will follow you happily, not knowing you are taking it to die. So this idiom implies a naivety on the part of the lamb, when in fact its life is in the hands of another. That seems to be the same as your meaning for the fish on the cutting board.

Another one we use is to be a sitting duck. The duck is unaware of the danger it is in by remaining still. That makes it much easier to shoot.

The shooting fish in a barrel idiom is more implying that some task is very easy. It is not used from the fish's perspective.

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    As you point out, "sitting duck" is the obvious and exact equivalent in English. (the other two you mention are irrelevant, or only vaguely close - but then dozens of phrases are vaguely close)
    – Fattie
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:25
  • Better than "sitting" would be "dead": "After my accomplice told all, I was a dead duck." Commented May 20, 2015 at 0:24
  • I have only heard the first as (like a) lamb to the slaughter. That seems to be the most common phrasing, but others are widely used—some with lambs instead of a lamb, some with led, some without the.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 3:21

The closest expression I can think of is

have/put your head on the (chopping) block

That is 'to risk a bad thing happening to you by doing something or helping someone.'

Other animal-based analogies which could be used in a similar context to the one you mention, but have a slightly different use are 'like pigs to the slaughter' and 'like fish in a barrel.'

edit: As Joe has pointed out in comments, 'like a sitting duck' is also a good match. The key difference between the chopping block and the duck comparison is whether the agent (person/company/team etc) in question is aware of their own vulnerability and/or has put themselves there deliberately.

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    We do have 'like a fish out of water', but it lacks the same sense of immenent danger, and is now fairly similar to 'an odd fish' : someone who stands out from a group as not belonging in a certain situation.
    – webbcode
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 16:52
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    'Like fish in a barrel' is probably the closest, but it's inverted compared to the vietnamese situation described. Instead of describing the situation from the fish's hopeless perspective, it is usually used to describe a situation from the perspective of the person outside the barrel, doing the shooting.
    – webbcode
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:16
  • Hi Sam - "like a sitting duck" is the obvious answer. putting your head on the chopping block is a little similar (it's when you "stick your neck out" actively to help someone), but, "like a sitting duck" is simply exactly the same as the vietnamese saying in question.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:24
  • @JoeBlow I've added your suggestion to my answer - for some reason I understood the question to mean someone knowingly at risk, which coloured my original answer (where obliviousness is a key component of the sitting duck).
    – Sam
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 8:42
  • The metaphorical block is also commonly used for things as well as people. Anything that can be discontinued, halted or expunged can be said to be 'on the chopping block'. Example: "The company had a down quarter, so now my project, maybe even our whole department, is on the chopping block." This borrows more from the visual of chopping wood with an axe (which is quite similar to execution by beheading). +1
    – Patrick M
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 16:29

You could be up a creek:

Also, up shit creek; up the creek (without a paddle): In trouble, in a serious predicament, as in" If the check doesn't arrive today I'm up a creek", or "The car wouldn't start, so I was up the creek without a paddle." This slangy idiom conjures up the image of a stranded canoeist with no way of moving (paddling) the canoe. [idioms.freedictionary.com]


There is

  • "behind the eight-ball" (at a disadvantage)
  • "under the gun" (literally in mortal peril but usually used in situations of stress rather than danger)
  • "on one's last legs" (dilapidated or exhausted to the point of collapse)
  • "in the jaws of death" (usually meaning physical danger)
  • "circling the bowl" (approaching defeat or failure)
  • "one foot in the grave" (physically ill)
  • "hanging by a thread" (facing imminent disaster, often in a professional or financial sense)
  • "the vultures are circling" (typically said of business problems)

I think the best analogy would be phrase "to be a sitting duck". Googling the original phrase "như cá nằm trên thớt" as first result shows article about situation in Ukraine. After translating it with Google you can see that article uses original phrase to express extreme vulnerability and helplessness. This indicates "to be a sitting duck" is better match than "like lambs to the slaughter" as that one is more about naivity than peril.


Two similes come to mind:

  • "like lambs to the slaughter" This could fit if the fish lies quietly on the board, unaware of danger.

    • Innocently and helplessly, without realizing the danger. For example, She agreed to appeal to the board, little knowing she would go like a lamb to the slaughter . TFD
  • "like a frightened rabbit" although it lacks the sense of danger or imminent death.


I would go with between a rock and a hard place, which I am guessing originally referred to someone having their head smashed in on a sacrificial altar. In Vietnam, fish are usually still alive when they are cut up!

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    originally referred to someone having their head smashed in on a sacrificial altar [citation needed] Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:50
  • @mikeTheLiar I remember reading the proposal in William Safire's book, On Language, p. 29.
    – user31341
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 1:50
  • between a rock and a hard place means - unsurprisingly - tht you are stuck between two difficult choices. it has nothing to do with being a sitting duck, or a fish on the board.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:26
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    In every telling I've run across, between a rock an a hard place is freely interchangeable with between Scylla (a rock) and Charybdis (which, to a mariner, would be a hard place).
    – bye
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 9:29
  • "between a rock and a hard plaice" would be in keeping with the "fish" theme, I guess ;-)
    – psmears
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 18:24

Another that I don't see mentioned yet: "Out of the frying pan, into the fire" -- though that's more escaping a bad situation into an even worse one.


To be expressive as possible in English, do not use clichés. "Like a fish on a cutting board" is comprehensible in English without borrowing some antique colloquialism.


I live in Vietnam, so I understand this sentence means, but my English is not well so cannot describe to help you understand more. But I will say briefly. Ex: She/He get a trouble but they are as totall lost, they don't know what to do, they don't know who to ask, To solve the problem. That is some means of that sentence. Cá nằm trên thớt

  • Sounds a bit like the English expression a fish out of water (dictionary.reference.com).
    – Drew
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 3:17

"In the mouth of the lion's den" or "Walking into the lion's den".

"I am sunk."


"Like a cornered rat" is an idiom that suggests that the "rat" in question is in imminent mortal danger. However, this phrase usually also carries the connotation that the person being cornered is unpleasant/nasty/dishonest (the "villain") and that the person(s) doing the cornering are virtuous/on the side of right (the "hero(es)").

(As Malvolio notes in the comment below, you should note that the most common use of this phrase is to warn the attacker of the potential for the desperate foe to retaliate violently, even against the odds.)

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    The proverbial cornered rat will resort to extreme tactics, such as attacking a much larger animal. The phrase is meant to warn the attacker about his desperate adversary. Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:13
  • @Malvolio That's a good point, and I concede it. Like others, I wanted to give the questioner another alternative (which might, as in this case, have a slightly different shade of meaning). I've edited my answer to clarify.
    – Deepak
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:19
  • Rethinking this, I realized that "like a cornered rat", means "liable to resort to extreme measures", but "cornered like a rat" means "in danger and lacking options" (which, of course, will often lead to extreme measures). Both phrases come from the unsavory sport of rat-baiting. Commented Jun 14, 2015 at 19:34

Variants of like ants under a magnifying glass may carry the meaning.


I think it depends on how the phrase is being used, and like some idioms, it could have different meaning in context. Like a fish on cutting board could mean something is about to end, it could mean time is of the essence, it could mean a decision needs to be made, it could mean it's too late to make any decision. The important question in my mind is, 'how is it used'? Some idioms that come to mind include: "shit or get off the pot" "the sword of Damocles is upon us.."

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