Unwritten "rules", hidden meanings, and fish geek interpretations...

One of the best things about this blog is that I can test my bizarre theories, my philosophical inclinations, and just confirm if my ideas about the aquarium-keeping world hold any merit. Many of my discussions with you, my fellow fish geeks, give me the chance to pause and reflect, and confirm a theory that I hold near and dear:

There is a common (unwritten) “language” or set of “rules” by which our fish-keeping culture operates. I’ve touched on it before, here, but it’s time for a bit more depth..To this end, I decided to expand further in my test of this theory. I believe, much like the “certainties” about things you shouldn’t do, that there are things that you shouldn’t say to aquarists, as they will affect our onboard neural “programming”, compelling us to respond in ways that are common to all of us who hold the title of “fish geek.”

To that end, I support my theory with an analysis of several things that you can say to fish geeks that are sure to evoke specific responses. These are just a few- I’m relying on you to expand upon this theory by adding some of your own:

“That’s a very hardy, non-aggressive fish.. for a cichlid.” - That’s fish-geek-speak for, “Dude, you should take this fish off of my hands, because it’s taking over my tank.” And let’s be perfectly honest, in aquarium keeping parlance, the phrase “taking over my tank” is always a bad thing, unless it’s proceeded with the words, “These incredibly brightly colored Mbuna” or  “This super fast-growing Aerioculon" (things you’re not likely to hear). Usually, it’s in the context of a fish that the offerer is “done with” because their “interests have changed” (again, fish-geek-speak for “I finally got the initiative to get this brute out of my tank before he takes over everything!”). Unless you enjoy aggressive, modest colored fishes that dig in your substrate, beware!


“That ____________ is easy to install. Took me less than an hour.” - This phrase is generally delivered by your aquarium buddy who either: a) has a background in contracting, computer science, or engineering, b) is simply a beginner who is blessed with being able to charm other hobbyists into doing stuff for him/her, or c) had a stroke of dumb luck and is suddenly confident. This phrase generally comes into play after you were convinced to buy the same lighting system, CO2 system, reactor, or controller as your friend, because it “works so well for you.” This is a virtual guarantee that the “some assembly required” gremlin will pay you a visit over the course of the three days it will actually take to understand, assemble, install, uninstall, reinstall, and troubleshoot said device on your tank.



Whoa! Was that fish picking at your Madagascar Lace Plant?” - Of course, it will be the fish  that you were told was “plant safe” (whatever THAT means)- the one that spends most of it’s days hiding deep in your extensive, newly re-done (at great economic, time, and spousal relationship cost) rock and wood work. It’s generally the fish that you maybe see a few times a week, and the friend’s assertion usually comes after you might- MIGHT- have noticed a slight decline in that favorite uber-pricy, crazy rare plant of late, so you’re especially sensitive and attuned to trying to resolve this emergent problem. I don’t have to tell you what that means After you’re done going over the problem every night and losing sleep, guess what you’ll be doing at some point? Yup.

Your wife doesn’t expect you at your mother-in-law’s for two hours. You and I can easily plumb this tank with time to spare.”- Although it sounds like a great offer of help, which it is- there are a few things you need to consider regarding the source of the offer: Typically it means that your friend is single, just got out of a relationship with plenty of time on his or her hands, or just bought his/her spouse a big-ticket gift that hey/she has been wanting for some time. His/her relationship “account” is full, and just about anything he or she would do will not elicit a negative response for months. YOU, on the other hand, are walking that fine line between relationship bliss and being straight-up asked to give up your aquarium-keeping habit. You need to get this right, and you can’t ruffle any feathers doing it. Do you really need to tackle this tank project this afternoon, or is it best on some other day? Or will you tempt fate and forge ahead?

“Want some fry?” - Sort of the fish-keeping equivalent of the old cliche about drug dealers telling you that “The first one is free..” It doesn’t matter if your tank is full, and if the fish being offered is the wrong one for your type of system. You’re a fish geek for goodness sake! You know never to say no to a free fish, right? Um, right? Very little needs to be said here.

“That sale is too good to pass up.”- Usually proffered by your buddy who is: a) making way more than you and always seems to be able to afford cool stuff, b) in total financial free-fall and hides it well , or c) has a brand new credit card with a nice, juicy limit (doesn’t matter that his/her other cards are maxed out and in arrears). My unsolicited financial advice: just go for it. Oh, wait a second- that’s not particularly responsible from a financial perspective, is it? Then again, you’re a fish geek, and “financial responsibility” has a different meaning altogether, right? 


“You are so lucky to have all of those cool little snails in your plant tank!”- Typically said by a newbie visitor who has no idea that he just tipped you off to the fact that you have one of the most aggravating scourges in planted tank-keeping: Snails! It’s that indication of the “ah ha” moment when you realize that the problem that you thought was so small is now super apparent to even a non-fish person. That means it’s time for drastic action, right? A classic example of how a seemingly innocuous comment (to the the person making the observation, anyways) can radically alter your tank plans!

“Man, you really have a knack for breeding _______. You should do it for a living!”-  Scary. This is another one of those statements typically made by someone outside of the hobby, which may either spur you on to greatness or total failure, depending on your capability, determination, and fortitude. Often times, the decision to turn your passion into a career comes from internal motivation and dialogue, not outside observations. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea, just because someone else suggested it. It does, however, mean that you need to think this through on your own, right? The old adage about "making a small fortune by spending a large one" comes to mind here.

So, there you have a little rundown on some of the real meanings behind commonly heard “fish-geek-speak”, which will hopefully give you a better insight into our culture. You no doubt have dozens of your own examples, and in the spirit of this blog, it’s important for you to share them with your fellow fish geeks!

Thank you for participating in our little social experiment! (willingly or not!)

Until next time…


Stay open-minded. Stay motivated. Stay creative...


And Stay Wet.



Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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