Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Water Under The Bridge

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 24, 2013

Whenever you hear someone say it’s all water under the bridge, it’s just another way of saying that a problem or unpleasant situation has been addressed, and is best left in the past. Yes, whatever the problem was, it’s considered by everyone to be forgiven and, quite possibly, forgotten as well. So whenever you hear those words, you can be at peace knowing that whatever event you’re agonizing over is no longer an issue for all parties involved.

Back on May 12, 2011, The Libertines frontman, Carl Barat was quoted in the Glasgow, Scotland’s Daily Record┬ánewspaper as saying that a band reunion wasn’t in the cards for fans of the band. It had everything to do with the bad blood between Pete Doherty and himself. In the interview, he added:

We are all in very different places. Right now is not the time for The Libertines. I thought the water under the bridge was under the bridge, bug may it’s not. It’s a very hard thing. Every time we talk, it just brings it back up.

The expression was used in Vadim Bytensky’s book “Journey From St. Petersburg” published in 2007 by AuthorHouse. The book told the story of how the author returned to Russia in the 1990s, and witnessed how everything had changed since he had last seen it in 1975. At one point in the author’s story, he has this to say on page 128:

He spoke Russian with a Japanese accent. I played around with Japanese like a child playing with bricks. It was a most absorbing occupation, although unfortunately it lasted for only one year. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and my knowledge of Japanese has also evaporated — after all, who in Toronto needs a non-Japanese to translate from that language?

An uncomfortable situation in American history had to do with Watergate, and when the Gettysburg Times newspaper published a story entitled, “President Grilled By Press On Watergate; Will Not Resign; Would Get On With Business” back on August 23, 1973, it was obvious how uncomfortable the situation was. The story indicated that whenever the matter of Watergate cropped up, Richard Nixon deflected with comments that steered reporters in the direction of who the new Secretary of State and other such things. The story began with this paragraph:

Declaring that Watergate is “water under the bridge,” and giving explanations that conceded no personal negligence, Richard Nixon responded Wednesday for the first time in five months to direct questions about the scandal that has shaken his presidency.

Back on September 21, 1931 the Editorial of the Day in the Tuscaloosa News had everything to do with the Long no-cotton plan that was dead, as forecast in the Montgomery Advertiser 10 days earlier. There had been a number of opponents to the plan from Governor Long of Louisiana, and many Texans saw the plan as an attempt to boss Texans around. The editorial stated in part:

Had the Long plan been good, Long would have killed it in Texas. But all of this water under the bridge. The fact is that the no-cotton law of Louisiana will not be adopted by the other States, notwithstanding that on yesterday the Senate of the South Carolina Legislature voted to enact it. It is plainly unthinkable that the other cotton States should adopt the Louisiana law now that Texas, the greatest producing State, has rejected it.

The idiom has the same meaning as the older version known as water over the dam.

In fact, the New York Times published an article about the Mexican situation (as it was referred to at the time) on December 20, 1919. The issue of the cost of maintaining a border patrol of regular and National Guard troops to protect the Us border (at a cost of $1,000,000,000 since in the years since Madero had started Mexico on the revolutionary road back in 1911) was foremost in people’s minds. Among those interviewed was James S. Black, editor of the El Paso Times, who was quoted in the news story as saying:

But that is all water over the dam. What has been done cannot be undone, but the Administration might profit by the mistakes of the past. Mexico and Mexicans will respect American and their property once they are convinced the United States means business.

A few dictionaries claim that the expression water over the dam is American slang from the 1840s, however, Idiomation was unable to find any proof to support the claim.

However, because the expression was used in a published news article in 1919, it was obviously a common expression that was as easily understood in El Paso as in New York, and back dating it a generation, this pegs the expression to at least 1890. It’s possible that it goes back two generations, which would place it to sometime in the 1860s. But without proof, it’s difficult to guess that it goes back yet another generation (although it may very well go back to the 1840s).

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