[ kat-fish ]
/ ˈkætˌfɪʃ /
Save This Word!

noun, plural (especially collectively) cat·fish, (especially referring to two or more kinds or species) cat·fish·es.
any of the numerous fishes of the order or suborder Nematognathi (or Siluroidei), characterized by barbels around the mouth and the absence of scales.
a wolffish of the genus Anarhichas.
any of various other fishes having a fancied resemblance to a cat.
Slang. a person who assumes a false identity or personality on the internet, especially on social media websites, as to deceive, manipulate, or swindle.
verb (used with or without object)
Slang. to deceive, swindle, etc., by assuming a false identity or personality online: He fell in love with her online before he realized he'd been catfished.
Smoothly step over to these common grammar mistakes that trip many people up. Good luck!
Question 1 of 7
Fill in the blank: I can’t figure out _____ gave me this gift.

Origin of catfish

First recorded in 1605–15; cat + fish
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does catfish mean?

Aside from being a delicious kind of river fish, a catfish is a slang term for someone who seduces a person with a false identity online.

Where does catfish come from?

The 2010 documentary Catfish, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman about a young man getting romantically duped by a woman with a fake Facebook profile, takes its name from a tale long told about catfish—that fishers would ship catfish with codfish because they would keep the codfish alert, active, and better tasting.

That fishy story originates as a kind of Christian parable recorded by the early 1900s, but the documentary popularized catfish as a metaphor for a person who seduces another with a fake profile, pretending to be someone more attractive, successful, interesting, or sympathetic—keeping the seduced “on their toes” like codfish swimming with catfish. This is what happened to the subject of Catfish, Nev Schulman, who discovers that the woman he developed an online relationship had completely made up her profile.

The documentary spawned MTV’s reality show Catfish: The TV Show in November 2012, co-hosted by Nev Schulman. It follows people in online relationships, seeking to find out if they are getting catfished.

Catfish rose to prominence in 2013 when University of Notre Dame star football player Manti Te’o found himself catfished by a man pretending to be his girlfriend. The term further grew thanks to the spread of social media and online dating in the 2010s.

There are a number of motivations for the practice of catfishing, including financial gain, cyberbullying, identity exploration, and crime-fighting.

How is catfish used in real life?

Catfish can be a noun or a verb, with the impersonator sometimes called the catfish.

While early uses of the term centered on people creating false identities through fake accounts, the term has broadened to anyone who misleadingly presents themselves online as better in some way than they are in real life, often their looks or success. This—milder if widespread practice, as you’ll well know if you’ve ever been on Tinder or anywhere on social media for that matter—is sometimes called kittenfishing.

More examples of catfish:

“Personally Andy has never had need of dating apps like Bumble and Tinder because he met his wife of 14 years the old fashioned way – down the pub…But his background in criminal intelligence, he is qualified to be the perfect catfish hunter and can work with as little as a profile picture, address and contact details.”
—Becky Pemberton, The Sun, August, 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use catfish in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for catfish

/ (ˈkætˌfɪʃ) /

noun plural -fish or -fishes
any of numerous mainly freshwater teleost fishes having whisker-like barbels around the mouth, esp the silurids of Europe and Asia and the horned pouts of North America
another name for wolffish
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012