We Don’t Know Who Discovered Water, But We Know It Wasn’t a Fish

Marshall McLuhan? Albert Einstein? Clyde Kluckhohn? Pierce Butler? James C. Coleman? John H. Fisher? John Culkin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes an individual embedded in a particular culture or environment can become blind to the prevailing norms within his or her domain. I have heard a figurative expression that illustrates this predicament. Here are three versions:

  • We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.
  • The fish will be the last to discover water.
  • I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

These words are often credited to the communication theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, but I have not found a good citation. Could you examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in 1966, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he attributed the words to an anonymous “someone”. He also used the expression in later speeches. Detailed citations for McLuhan are given further below.

A recent update to the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” contained a thematically germane entry for “A fish doesn’t know it is in water; a fish doesn’t see water”. 1 The first citation for the adage was in a 1909 book titled “Every-Day Japan” which attempted to explicate the life and customs of Japan for an audience primarily in Britain and the United States. The following excerpt from the introduction was written by a Japanese Count. Emphasis added by QI: 2

It is said that fish do not see water, nor do Polar bears feel the cold. Native writers on subjects like those the present work deals with do not even think that anything which has been happening daily in their own immediate surroundings ever since their infancy can possibly be worthy of notice; the author of this work, on the contrary, being a foreigner, is able for this very reason to make a selection of striking facts, and, being also entirely free from local prejudice, is better able to arrive at just conclusions on the matters coming under his observation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Don’t Know Who Discovered Water, But We Know It Wasn’t a Fish


  1. 2016, Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, Volume 33, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs: A Supplement by Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, Start Page 85, Quote Page 96 and 97, Published by The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1909, Every-Day Japan by Arthur Lloyd, Section: Introduction by Count Hayashi (Tadasu Hayashi), Start Page xv, Quote Page xvi, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link