The idiom "carry water" can mean different things, depending on whether you're taking it literally or using it as a figure of speech. It means to hold and transport water in some sort of container. Figuratively, the phrase is often used to describe doing the grunt work for someone else or supporting their cause or agenda.
The phrase "carry water" has a couple of meanings. The literal sense is clear: you're physically carrying water, perhaps in a bucket or a jug, from one location to another. In its figurative sense, "carry water" often means doing the hard work for someone else, usually without getting much credit. You might be backing up your boss's ideas, supporting a friend in their project, or helping to promote a cause you believe in.
Let's break down what it usually means:
The word "carry" dates back to the early 14th century and means "to bear or convey, take along or transport." It was derived from the Late Latin "carricare," which in turn comes from Latin "carrum," originally a "two-wheeled Celtic war chariot." While the term "water" has its roots in Old English "wæter" from Proto-Germanic "*watr-." The idiomatic expression "carry water" is often used metaphorically to mean performing menial tasks for someone or being a sycophant. The phrase likely has its roots in the literal act of carrying water, which is a basic, essential task.
Also, they carry water to temper it and to fortify it, by which means their going ones are sure and safe against the rain. The dames do cleanse and make clean the nets."
- A Summarie of the Antiquities and Wonders of the Worlde... by Pliny (The Elder), 1585
To help you get a better sense of when to use this idiom, let's check out some examples from different walks of life:
This phrase also pops up in pop culture, often used to discuss the dynamics of power and influence.
Let's dive into some examples:
You can find other phrases that mean something similar to "carry water."
Here are some:
"Carry water" has a dual meaning. Literally, it means to transport water from one place to another. Figuratively, it refers to doing the unglamorous or menial work on behalf of someone else, often someone with more power or influence.
You can use this phrase both literally and figuratively. In its literal sense: "She carries water from the well to her home every morning." In its figurative sense: "He carries water for the team, doing the tasks no one else wants to do."
While the literal meaning is often associated with farming or rural communities, the figurative use is common in politics, business, and various organizational settings.
No, it doesn't always imply being exploited. Sometimes people willingly "carry water" for a cause or person they believe in.
Yes, in some cases, "carrying water" for someone can indicate loyalty or commitment to that person or cause.
The literal act of carrying water is as old as human civilization, but the figurative use likely stems from the practice where low-ranking individuals performed menial tasks like carrying water for those of higher status.
Its usage is more specialized and you're more likely to hear it in specific contexts like politics or organizational settings rather than in casual conversation.
Not really. "Pulling strings" implies using influence to get advantages, while "carrying water" suggests doing grunt work for someone else.
Yes, you can "carry water" for a group, organization, or cause, meaning you're willing to do the necessary but less glamorous tasks to support that larger entity.
It can, depending on the context. If it implies that someone is being taken advantage of, then it's negative. But if someone is willingly supporting a cause they believe in, it can be neutral or even positive.
The phrase "carry water" is rich in its duality, touching the literal act of transporting water and the metaphorical sense of doing grunt work for others. Understanding this phrase can give you insight into relationships and social structures, whether you're talking about a physical task or navigating the dynamics of power and loyalty.
Here's a quick recap: