Carry Water: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
December 16, 2023

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.

In short:

  • It means transporting water from one place to another.
  • In a figurative sense, it means supporting someone, usually in a behind-the-scenes way.

What Does "Carry Water" Mean?

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:

  • When you "carry water" for someone, you're their go-to helper or supporter.
  • The phrase usually means you're working hard, maybe even doing the tasks no one else wants to do.
  • It doesn't always mean you're in the spotlight; you might be doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
  • You can use it to say that someone is pushing a specific agenda, usually for someone else's benefit.
  • Other ways to say it might include "back someone up," "support," or "be someone's right-hand man."

Where Does "Carry Water" Come From?

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.

Historical Example

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

10 Examples of "Carry Water" in Sentences

To help you get a better sense of when to use this idiom, let's check out some examples from different walks of life:

  • He was willing to carry water for his boss to get a promotion.
  • Carrying water for the company didn't earn her the respect she thought it would.
  • His ability to carry water for the team makes him one of a kind.
  • Despite her talents, she was stuck carrying water for others in the organization.
  • Let’s grab a bite after we carry water for the community garden.
  • As a research assistant, her job was essentially to carry water for her professor.
  • Sharing is caring, just like how villagers carry water for each other.
  • She didn't mind carrying water for her friend's startup because she believed in the cause.
  • In this drought-stricken area, people who can carry water are in high demand.
  • In team sports, everyone has a role. Some stars shine, while others carry water.

Examples of "Carry Water" in Pop Culture

This phrase also pops up in pop culture, often used to discuss the dynamics of power and influence.

Let's dive into some examples:

  • In his book "Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall In Love With the Process of Becoming Great," Joshua Medcalf discusses the importance of embracing the journey towards greatness.
  • Bruce Hornsby's song "Carry The Water" talks about helping others and taking on their burdens. The lyrics go, "Let me carry your water, Let me carry the load, I will shoulder your burden, Let me carry the load."

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say "Carry Water"

You can find other phrases that mean something similar to "carry water."

Here are some:

  • Back someone up
  • Be the go-to helper
  • Play second fiddle
  • Do the dirty work
  • Be someone's right-hand man
  • Support behind the scenes
  • Take a back seat
  • Be a team player
  • Do the heavy lifting
  • Grind it out

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Carry Water":

  • What does "carry water" mean?

"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.

  • How can I use "carry water" in a sentence?

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."

  • Is the phrase used in specific industries or fields?

While the literal meaning is often associated with farming or rural communities, the figurative use is common in politics, business, and various organizational settings.

  • Does it always mean you're being taken advantage of?

No, it doesn't always imply being exploited. Sometimes people willingly "carry water" for a cause or person they believe in.

  • Can "carry water" imply loyalty?

Yes, in some cases, "carrying water" for someone can indicate loyalty or commitment to that person or cause.

  • Does it have any historical origins?

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.

  • Is it commonly used in everyday language?

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.

  • Is it similar to "pulling strings"?

Not really. "Pulling strings" implies using influence to get advantages, while "carrying water" suggests doing grunt work for someone else.

  • Can you "carry water" for a group or cause, not just an individual?

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.

  • Does "carry water" have a negative connotation?

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.

Final Thoughts About "Carry Water"

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:

  • "Carry water" can mean doing menial tasks for someone else, but it can also be an act of loyalty or commitment.
  • The phrase is often used in specific contexts like politics and business, but its roots can be traced back to basic human activity.
  • While it can sometimes have a negative connotation, this isn't always true. People can "carry water" for causes, groups, or individuals they genuinely support, expressing dedication.

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