In David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" Commencement Speech, there is a story used as a metaphor about a fish asking another fish "what the hell is water":

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

I had the impression this story was something I had heard before, and DFW was there only using or slightly modifying a popular joke to illustrate his point. However when now I tried to find its origin everything seems to point to This Is Water.

I am looking for any reference to the story or similar stories before 2005 or the confirmation of this not being a common tale in the American/Anglosaxon culture.

1 Answer 1


Pre-2005 is not hard since it was mentioned in Infinite Jest (1996). A biker from AA group tells the joke/story to Don Gately.

It’s not clear if this joke was invented or adapted by Wallace. Infinite Jest includes non-original material (e.g., an adaptation of the barrel of bricks story). Some people say Infinite Jest is where the fish joke originally appeared (Paul Abbott, What Isn’t Water—David Foster Wallace and the Ambiguity of a Punch Line):

The joke/parable originally appeared in Infinite Jest, in a slightly different form:

This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, “What the fuck is water?”

The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello (1984) contains a story with some similar elements.

From Amazon review:

I have three favorite stories from this book: “The Little Fish,” “The Contented Fisherman,” and “Domesticated Rebels.” “The Little Fish” has made its way into popular culture, and many have cited De Mello as its original source. You may recognize it from the Pixar and Disney movie Soul, the famous “This is Water” commencement speech by David Foster Wallace in 2005, or a reference in The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. Here it is.

“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the Ocean?”
“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now.”
“Oh, this? But this is water. […]

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