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The old fisherman's proverb popularized by Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace has a history of uses in literal contexts (fishing), however after the release of Phantom Menace the metaphorical use of the expression to mean there's always someone/something more powerful has exploded in popularity.

However, Phantom Menace cannot be credited with starting this (not to mention, the use in the movie is pretty literal). I have found a metaphorical use of the expression in the political science magazine The New Republic in 1981:

[...] become victims of this ineluctable logic than ordinary innocent people are. There is always a bigger fish swimming behind, and the higher the official, the more certainly he will be devoured.

What I'm curious about is how far back metaphorical uses of this expression can be traced. Is there any recorded use of it prior to the 1980s?

  • A good idea would be a dedicated Google search. – user373710 Feb 4 at 18:20
  • @Nico Already done. This is the result of my research. – called2voyage Feb 4 at 18:29
  • The quote from the magazine might be a one off. It is not unusual for idioms to get entrenched via some expression that gets popular on the basis of its occurrence in a movie or a song. shareedit delete flag – user373710 Feb 4 at 18:55
  • @Nico It's not a one-off in general before the movie: Ex. 1, Ex. 2. It may be a one-off for pre-90s though. – called2voyage Feb 4 at 19:01
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    @Nico Yes, I'm curious about exactly what you're speculating here. Are the handful of instances of metaphorical use prior to the movie an anomaly or is there actually a longer history to the metaphorical use of this expression? – called2voyage Feb 4 at 19:05
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A Google Books search for "always a bigger fish" yields two relevant matches, albeit with quite different connotations.

From "Where Ignorance Is Bliss," a letter to the editor of The Spectator, dated October 29, 1929 [combined snippets]:

... their lives and meet the Debit Men every Saturday night? Are they minnows on which to feed? If they are, I would remind you to look out since there is always a bigger fish around the bend (and he probably is a sucker, even so).

Here, the expression—although used figuratively—takes the perspective of a fisherman trying to catch a fish, and the general sense of the expression is optimistic: if you don't catch a fish here, you'll have a chance to catch an even bigger one at the next point along the river where you cast your line.

And from an unidentified article in The Fisherman, volume 6 (1955) [combined snippets]:

The average five-pound largemouth or two-pound smallmouth, for example, has no natural enemies to speak of, and he doesn't have to stay in shape to stay alive. This is why the biggest bass are often disappointing fighters. With salt-water fish it's a different story. No matter how big a jack, snook, or striper grows, there's always a bigger fish who'd like to make a meal of him, ...

Here the expression is literally about fish and makes the familiar observation that even a large fish is subject to being eaten by a larger fish.

Earlier than either of the two preceding instances is this instance that a Hathi Trust search turns up, from "British Sea Anglers' Society: Seventeenth Annual Dinner," in The Fishing Gazette (March 12, 1910):

Of many sportsmen it may be said that if you meet two of them, let them alone. It is true of golfers—let them alone, but not sea fishermen ; it is good to foregather with them, and always interesting, and there is always a bigger fish in the sea than has been taken out of it.

In this context, the expression, again used literally, indicates essentially that "there are more and better from where the current catch came from."

Of the two senses of the expression the one used literally in the 1955 Fisherman article seems to capture the idea of smaller fish being pursued by bigger fish in an endless pattern of larger and larger prey and predators.

Of course, the image of a very small fish being chased by a slightly larger fish, which is being chased by a slightly larger one, and so on, is a standard visual representation that seems to have been around for many years. Steven Pulimood, "Dreams of a Distant Wildness: Pieter Breughel," in the [New York City] Columbia [University] Spectator (October 3, 2001) reproduces a photo of a painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder called Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556) that shows a monstrous fish being cut up by two fishermen and disgorging somewhat smaller fish that are themselves shown with fish in their mouth. The caption reads as follows:

In "Fish Eat Little Fish," Breughel was inspired by Hieronymous Bosch to portray proverbs in his work.

Whether the saying "Big fish eat little fish" was a proverb in Breughel's day or not, the observation has been a familiar one for centuries—and it is only one step beyond the commonsense figurative wisdom of that saying to note that, however big a fish may be, there is always a bigger one somewhere.

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  • This requires an infinite universe. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 at 18:53
  • @EdwinAshworth: Or, alternatively, a practical limit such as "that than which none greater can be imagined." – Sven Yargs Apr 4 at 22:50
  • The infamous knowledge of salmon. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 at 14:27
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Although you correctly stated it’s literal use in Phantom Menace in the scene in which it is stated by Qui-Gon Jinn - you failed to realize the conception of the entire film (and everything in it) is structured upon this proverb.

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  • 2
    This is a good point, but kind of orthogonal to the question. – called2voyage Nov 20 at 3:00

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