Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hold Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 22, 2013

If an idea, reason or argument is strong and coherent, doesn’t seem to have any holes, and stands up under critical examination, it’s said to hold water. Conversely, if it’s a bad idea or a poor argument, you’ll hear people say it won’t hold water.

On November 29, 2001 Neha Kaushik’s article on Coca-Cola Indias (CCI) was published in The Hindu newspaper. The article reported that strategies applied by the soft drink giant resulted in the company garnering 24 percent in the packaged water segment in just over a year. The article was entitled, “Coke’s Plans Hold Water.”

When the Lodi News Sentinel wrote about Vice-President Ford’s “Meet The Press” appearance in their January 10, 1974 edition, the difficult position Gerald Ford found himself in was clear. It was reported that the “Meet The Press” interviewer had recalled comments Gerald Ford had made before with regards to impeaching a President. It appears that Gerald Ford stammered and attempted to “bail himself out of the dilemma” only to make another comment the reporter latched on to. In the news story, the article ended with this comment:

The grounds for impeachment cited in Section 4, Article II apply not only to the president and vice president which clearly includes judges. Ford’s explanation of the discrepancy between his views in 1970 and today on grounds for impeachment does not hold water.

Back on October 10, 1932 the Ellensurg Daily Records reported on the captain of the prison guards at the Sunbeam prison camp near Jacksonville, Florida who allegedly whipped Arthur Maillefert with an 18-inch length of 3 inch rubber hose, normally used for coupling freight cars. At the time, whipping prisoners was against Florida laws. Things went terribly wrong and Maillefert died, which led Captain Courson to coerce other prisoners into lying about what had happened. The story stated that one of the witnesses alleged the following was true:

“Then Captain Courson told me: ‘Bob, there’s liable to be some trouble over this.'”

“Yes, Cap’n, it is a pretty tight spot,” Blake said he replied.

“He told me to go in and get him five or six witnesses who might be able to clear him at a trial.”

“I did. After I went out I told Courson I thought he had a story that would hold water.”

The witnesses said they “framed it” so several convicts would testify that Maillefert intended to commit suicide.

It’s unfortunate that the story didn’t give details about when the court case was due to resume, or if the judge made arrived at a verdict that day. It also didn’t indicate what the penalty might be if a guilty verdict was rendered. In spite of all this, the story was aptly entitled:

Prison Guard Framed Story Says Extrusty: Says Officer Obtained His Help In Framing Alibi That Would Hold Water At Trial

Nearly two generations before that story was published, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran a story from Bangor, Maine on October 13, 1887. This story was about the articles in the New York World and Boston Globe newspapers reporting on the bank robbery in Dexter. There were several discrepancies highlighted such as the fact that, due to the amount of snow on the ground, the robbers couldn’t have driven away in a wagon as alleged. This story was entitled:

Editor Robbins Scouts the Theory of Murder Still: He Says The Confession of Stair Does Not Hold Water

The expression was even found in the Daily National Intelligencer of July 15, 1842 with regards to the bill to provide revenue from imports, and to change and modify existing laws imposing duties on imports and for other purposes which was debated in on July 11 in the House of Representatives. When C.J. Ingersoll to the floor, he had a lot to say about the situation, some of which had its roots in discussing free trade and direct taxation extending from 1783. His comments made their way to what Mr. Ingersoll referred to as the Nullification war, and the Compromise Act of 1833, and in the course of his statements, he stated the following:

Among other things it had been stated that there were but about sixty-seven thousand persons immediately interested in manufactures, and these protection bills were to be passed for that handful of men! Very well; admitting it to be so, how many shipping merchants were there in the United States? About forty thousand probably; and was not our entire navigation system framed to protect them? Laws not merely protective, but absolutely prohibitory? The doctrine that no legislation was to take place for the benefit of particular classes in the country would never hold water. How many lawyers were there in the United States? (and this objection came from one who was himself a distinguished lawyer) Were there fifteen thousand? And were the laws which guarded their profession all robbery and plunder?

Other politicians took to the floor and shared their opinions, and in the end, the newspaper reported that the debate was to be continued.

English actor, playwright, and poet laureate, Colley Cibber (June 11, 1671 – November 12, 1757) wrote “She Wou’d, and She Wou’d Not: Or the Kind Imposter. A Comedy, as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane by His Majesty’s Servants” which was published in 1703.  In Act IV of this play, the expression was used here:

This business will never hold water.

As research continued, an old Swedish proverb was found that read: “Don’t throw away the old bucket until you know whether the new one holds water.”  Now that’s very good advice indeed, and certainly drives home the point that an old bucket without holes in it beats a new bucket that won’t hold water … both literally and figuratively speaking.

Although Idiomation was unable to pin an exact date to the Swedish proverb, the expression dates back to at least the early 1600s, and this is suggested based in part on the ease with which Colley Cibber used it in his play in 1703.

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