Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Weak As Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 14, 2015

When someone says another person is weak as water, it could mean it usually means the other person is easily influenced.  After all, water always chooses the path of least resistance in nature, and likewise, if someone is weak as water, they won’t want to cause waves.  They’ll also choose the path of least resistance.

It was in the newspaper The Age of Thursday, March 23, 1978 that news of the Australian federal government’s decision to free Queensland Aborigines from state laws governing the administration of Aboriginal reserves. According to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister at the time, the legislation would override the Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Act. But not everyone was impressed with the announcement.

The Queensland state government last night declared it would use every weapon available to block the legislation. The acting Queensland Premier, Mr. Knox, said he was astounded by the move. “We will oppose this attempt both politically and in the courts,” Mr. Knox said.

In Hong Kong, the Queensland Premier, Mr. Bjelke-Petersen, said the Federal Government’s actions were “as weak as water.”

On July 30, 1951 an Associated Press story written by William F. Arbogast went national and reported on the final congressional approval for an economic controls bill that President Truman would then be expected to sign even though he disagreed with the bill. If the bill wasn’t signed into law by the next evening, all existing government controls over things such as wages, prices, and rents would come to a screeching halt. Added to the situation was the fact that there wasn’t even enough time for the President to veto the vote by Congress. The article was aptly titled, “Weak As Water Controls Bill Nears Final Approval By Congress Once More Leaving Consumers Holding The Bag.”

Of course, sometimes newspapers and books yield up interesting situations such as the one mentioned in the Palm Beach Post newspaper of May 18, 1923 that ran a full-page under the headline, “Questions For Consideration At Mass Meeting Tonight To Discuss Municipal Ownership of Public Utilities.”   The issue at heart was that of the water supply to West Palm Beach, and included such questions as these:

Will they sell the water plant at actual cost and deduct the $20,000 or more estimated losses they will incur each year during the next eight years?

Who has been trying to enact a law in the State Legislature to take away power of increase and reduction of public utilities rates from municipal authorities and place this power with the State Railroad Commission?

Can three men who reside in Tallahassee fix public utility rates for all Florida and do justice to all concerned?

Did anybody ever try to put a yellow rope around Lorenzo Garland’s neck?

Is the request of the Water Company for an increase in rates as weak as water?

Who is willing to be the goat and stand up against the corporations who own public utilities and their agents, hirelings, and retained attorneys?

The Bryan Times of June 29, 1882 published a story by Rose Terry Cooke entitled, “Just Like A Man” that shared typical male and female interactions as seen through the eyes of the author. Halfway through the story, Sarah and her mother segue into this part of their discussion.

“Bless your soul and body,” Put in her mother; “I never see the thing yet you wa’n’t afeard of, Sary, horse or not.”

“Oh I know it, ma, but I am awfully afeard of a skittish horse; Tom, he don’t really sense it, and he says Jenny ain’t ugly, she’s just full of play; and I s’pose she is; she’s knowing as a dog, and I give her a bite of somethin’ every time he fetches her ’round, and she knows me real well, but she will jump and lash out and sky sometimes, and it makes me just as weak as water, so’t I don’t never drive her if I can help it.”

Reaching back into history, the expression is identified as a proverb in John Ray’s “A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs” that was first published in 1674. John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was a Fellow of the Royal Society as well as the author of “Historia Plantarum.”  Since John Ray has identified this as a proverb, a quick search of the Christian Bible reveals that, indeed, it does appear in the Christian Bible in Ezekiel 21.

 “As for you, son of man, groan; with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan before their eyes.   And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that it is coming. Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’” declares the Lord God.

On a related parallel note, water isn’t actually weak. Water determines its own path in nature (and sometimes in the city as well). It can be transformed into liquid, gas, or a solid (ice). It can erode stone, concrete, and other hard substances. It can sustain bacteria and other living organisms. In other words, water is anything but weak.  But Idiomation digresses on the matter of the idiom at hand.

Back on topic, the Book of Ezekiel is found in the Old Testament, so it’s more than two thousand years old. What history tells us is that Ezekiel was taken to Babylon in the first captivity and served as a religious counselor to the Hebrews that lived along the banks of the Kebar River around 597 B.C. Portions of the Book of Ezekiel, however, were written prior to Jerusalem’s fall in 586 B.C. This puts the expression to the time the Book of Ezekiel was written. It may be older than that, but Idiomation was unable to find an earlier version of this expression.

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