I was in a meeting today with a Romanian man, mid-40s, clearly well-educated. His first language was, I believe, Romanian. In any case, he used a lot of expressions as he spoke, and whilst they were all basic expressions one would hear from a native speaker, it struck me as pleasant that he spoke like this in what was, to him, a foreign language. A one point during the meeting, however, he used an expression which I believe was meant to indicate the futility of something - specifically, he said it was "[tantamount to] running on paddlers' fins". I had never heard this before so I jotted it down, but after the meeting, I couldn't find it anywhere! Has anyone heard this before? (The man was making Star Trek references and quotes in English, I don't think he just translated it on the spot, it flowed so naturally). Please help!

  1. Is this an established expression?
  2. What does it specifically mean?
  • At a guess, paddlers' fins are quite possibly swim fins or flippers, which are very difficult to run in. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 10:47
  • If he's using the right device in the wrong realm, he might be "a fish out of water." If he's using something meant to be efficient in one realm but downright useless in another, it might be like "a fish with a bicycle." If he's adding something for mere ornamentation, he might be "gilding the lily." If the addition of flippers detracts, one might say "more is less." What direction was the speaker taking? Could you give us more context?
    – rajah9
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:26

1 Answer 1


Adding swim fins make a swimmer a more efficient swimmer. But donning them before a track event would be a disaster. The efficiency in one arena becomes a burden in another.

The bicycle is efficient; perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever devised.

bicycle efficiency

(Exploratorium: Science of Cycling)

Like a fish needs a bicycle

Since it does not have legs and cannot pedal, a fish would gain no mechanical efficiency from the bicycle.

The expression like a fish needs a bicycle is a funny idiom to visualize, and it’s easy to figure out when you think about it.

Does a fish need a bicycle? Not at all.

Therefore, like a fish needs a bicycle is a simile that people can use when someone doesn’t need something at all.

(WritingExplained.org: What Does Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle mean?)

Consider a case where the grocery stores require a mask to enter, perhaps to reduce the spread of some communicable disease.

"Bill wore a hazmat suit to the grocery store to buy milk? Instead of an N95 mask??"

"Yep, like a fish needs a bicycle."

  • 1
    Given your example, you may have misunderstood like a fish needs a bicycle which originated in "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" - a popular phrase which started during the feminist movement in the 1970s. Thus: women have no need for something as useless as a man. The OP's "saying" describes "fins" or "flippers" as a positive impediment rather than something that is merely neutral.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 11:51
  • 1
    I think 'A sprinter needs flippers like a fish needs a bicycle' would have merited an upvote; not an exact match, as Greybeard says, but probably as close as one will get. The rest is very interesting, but extraneous. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 11:53
  • @Greybeard I'm not sure if the bicycle would be neutral or a downright impediment to said fish.
    – rajah9
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:00
  • @EdwinAshworth ah, but isn't "very interesting" why we put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard?
    – rajah9
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:02
  • @rajah9 As the fish cannot use a bicycle - the bicycle would simply sit unused - it is therefore not an impediment, merely useless. On the other hand, anyone can put on fins/flippers and they always impede walking, running, etc.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:05

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