Thinking about picking up a new hobby or pursuing a new career? Talk to an American, and he or she will probably tell you to test the waters first. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you’ll get wet. Americans use the expression when they want to learn more about something before committing to it.

Below are six other idiomatic phrases built around the word “water”:

Water under the bridge

What it means: Something that happened in the past and cannot be changed but is no longer a source of concern.
In conversation: “Maria and Janice did not like each other in high school, but that’s water under the bridge. Now, they are good friends.”

Illustration of two people shaking hands on bridge with water beneath (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Troubled waters

What it means: Emotionally rough times or an unsettled situation.
In conversation: “I’ve noticed that you and your parents have been fighting a lot these days. I would like to help calm the troubled waters if I can.”

Like water off a duck’s back

What it means: To have no effect on someone.
In conversation: “Patricia never takes criticism personally. She accepts it and doesn’t feel hurt — it’s like water off a duck’s back.”

Illustration of a duck standing under a spray of water (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Keep (one’s) head above water

What it means: To just barely manage to stay ahead, financially or with one’s work or responsibilities.
In conversation: “Peter is having a difficult time at the university because he wasn’t very well prepared academically, but he is somehow managing to keep his head above water.”

In hot water

What it means: In trouble.
In conversation: “Cheryl borrowed her mother’s best silk blouse without permission and spilled soda on it. She knew she’d be in hot water when she got home.”

Hold water

What it means: To be credible or sound; to stand up to scrutiny; to make sense. The expression is used in reference to arguments or ideas rather than people.
In conversation: “Two scientists claimed that they had achieved fusion at room temperature. Other scientists wanted to test the theory to see if it would hold water.”

Illustration of water leaking from a bucket (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Learn more

ShareAmerica features materials on learning American English. Explore everyday conversations or learn idioms that take their inspiration from the sky, comedy and animals.

The American English website has a variety of free resources for learners and teachers of English, including the In the Loop guide to the origin and meaning of common American idioms. The American English Facebook page posts learning materials for English-language learners daily.