‘Like a duck to water’ (Idioms with ‘water’, Part 1)


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by Kate Woodford

It’s surprising how many commonly used idioms contain the word ‘water’. There are so many, in fact, that this post will consist of two parts, (1 and 2). As ever, we will look at the most frequent and useful ones.

If you describe past arguments or difficulties, especially with a relationship, as water under the bridge, you mean that you no longer feel angry or upset about them because they happened so long ago:

I mean, we had our problems. We even broke up at one point, but that’s all water under the bridge.

Someone who is in hot water is in trouble over something they have said or done:

He found himself in hot water over his comments on childcare.

The tweet landed her in hot water with her boss.

Something that is dead in the water has failed and now has no chance of succeeding:

The deal is now widely reckoned to be dead in the water.

If you test the water(s), you find out people’s opinions or responses to a plan in order to work out whether it is worth going ahead with it:

We’re hoping to do a pop-up vegan café to test the waters before we find anywhere permanent to rent.

Perhaps not surprisingly, two water idioms also feature ducks. If someone takes to a new role or an activity like a duck to water, they are immediately very good at it:

He took to fatherhood like a duck to water.

Criticisms of someone that are like water off a duck’s back do not upset that person or influence their behaviour. (The image here is of water running off the duck’s feathers and not being absorbed by them):

The insults don’t worry her in the least. It’s like water off a duck’s back.

While we’re thinking about creatures in relation to water, a fish out of water refers to a person who is very uncomfortable in a situation that they are not used to, often someone who is very different from everyone else who is there:

Poor David looked like a fish out of water at the award ceremony.

We’ll finish with a nice saying. We say You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink meaning that you can only help someone to do something. You can’t actually force them to do it:

I’ve bought him a gym membership and all the kit, but he still doesn’t exercise. I guess you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

48 thoughts on “‘Like a duck to water’ (Idioms with ‘water’, Part 1)

  1. Jaishree Kushwaha

    Excellently done. I enjoyed reading all the idioms. They have been explained well with meaning as well as sentences.
    Thank you for all your effort to help us.

  2. Ashin Sarana

    Honestly, this was the best post I have ever read from you. Never heard a single of these idioms. Thank you for your hard work. Looking forward to learning more from you. 🌞

  3. Merga Regassa

    Thank you, Katie! Beautiful hydro-oriented idioms. Love it! Cambridge is my favorite English dictionary, by far! Keep up the good work!

  4. Sharron Sharron

    Thanks to u guys for ur effort, trying to make everyone to understand English better. It was a very learning for me I am so grateful thanks to u guys again.

  5. I have a grammar question reffering to the last sentence.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    Why “him” and not “it”? Shouldn’t we use “it” when we talk about animals?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! Good question! Yes, you do often hear ‘it’ for animals where the gender isn’t known or isn’t relevant, and there’s plenty of evidence for this phrase with ‘it’. However, there’s evidence for ‘him’ too. We seem to use both. Best wishes!

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