Water metaphors, analogies, proverbs, and idioms are useful for helping writers to create more effective stories.
Some excellent water metaphors for writers are:
- The river is a weaving snake
- The water searched for the sea
- The water roared
Some of my favorite water proverbs are:
- Blood is thicker than water
- To change mid-stream
- To throw the baby out with the bathwater
Below, I’ll outline both water metaphors and proverbs for writers.
A List of Water Metaphors, Analogies, Idioms and Proverbs
1. A Drop in the Bucket
When we say something is ‘a drop in the bucket’, it usually means that it’s not going to make a difference.
Imagine how many drops of water there are in one bucket. Maybe a million?
So, adding just one drop into a bucket doesn’t really change anything much. You might say this when you pay a bit of money to pay down your mortgage, but you know it’s still a long way from finally having paid it off!
2. Blood is Thicker than Water
The saying “blood is thicker than water” stems from medieval Europe, first recorded in Germany in the 12th Century.
It’s used today to say that people you are related to (your blood bonds) are more important than friends (your water bonds). Your relatives will stay by your side no matter what.
Some commentators argue that the saying is a misinterpretation of the saying: “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, which implies people who have shed blood together in battle are more bonded to one another than their family.
3. Changing mid-Stream
To change mid-stream is to change your mind or change what you’re doing after you have gotten started. We might also say that you “changed course”. The saying relates back to the idea of horses fording a river. They get half way across the river and turn around to return to where they started because of the danger involved.
Changing mid-stream is obviously not the best course of action, so it’s often used negatively to talk about someone who doesn’t stick to their plan.
4. Don’t throw the Baby out with the Bath Water
This saying refers to the idea that you need to throw out bad things, but not throw out the good things in the process.
In this analogy, the bathwater needs to be thrown out, but make sure you take the baby out of the bath first because you still want to keep it!
An example of this idiom is when you are writing a poem and you don’t like one stanza of the poem. You might say “I don’t like it, I’ll throw the poem away and start again.” Your friend might reply: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just get rid of that one stanza so you don’t waste the good stanzas.”
5. Dry up your Drip
To dry up your drip is to stop talking. It’s often used as a command to people who gossip or are speaking too much. Their friends or parents might say “dry up your drip” to prevent them from sharing too much information. It relates to the concept of a leaky tap dripping. A leaky tap drips involuntarily, and similarly it seems this person is also sharing information without thinking!
6. Fish out of Water
A person who is a fish out of water is someone who feels like they’re doing something that’s not natural to them. They also feel like they’re doing a bad job at it. An extension of this saying (which turns it into a simile) is “flailing like a fish out of water.”
Personally, I might use this saying if I were to go and dance ballet. Having never done it before, I might stand on the dance floor and say “wow, I’m a fish out of water here!”
7. Get your Feet Wet
To get your feet wet is to have a go at something. It usually involves just trying it out a little bit but only enough to try it out and see how you like it. The saying relates to wading a foot deep at the beach rather than jumping right into the deep water. For example, you might join a baseball game for the first time but just field rather than pitching or batting – you’re getting involved, but not doing everything. You’re just getting your feet wet.
8. Jump in the Deep End
To jump in the deep end is the exact opposite of getting your feet wet. This metaphor doesn’t literally mean you’re jumping into the deep end of a pool, but it means you’re going to get started without any training or slow introduction. It’s often followed by “and I’ll see if I sink or swim” because if you’re in the deep end of the pool you can’t stand on the bottom. You have to learn to succeed immediately!
9. In Deep / Bad / Hot / Troubled Waters
To say you’re in deep water isn’t exactly the same as saying you jumped in the deep end. It’s often used in a different context. When you say you’re in deep water, it means you’re struggling with something and can’t cope. We can also say ‘bad’, ‘hot’ or ‘troubled’ waters to mean the same thing.
10. Make a big Splash
To make a big splash is to do something that gets a lot of attention. It relates to someone who dive-bombs into water and – literally – makes a big splash. Everyone would turn around and look at them to see what’s going on.
But metaphorically, this saying relates to someone who has done something really impressive. You might say a beautiful lady at a ball has made a big splash if everyone is talking about the dress she wore, for example.
11. Raining Cats and Dogs
To say it’s raining cats and dogs is to say that it’s raining really heavily. This is a bizarre idiom and no one really knows where it comes from. One suggestion is that it’s to say that the rain is so strong that it’s unbelievable, just like the idea that cats and dogs would rain from the sky is unbelievable. Alternatively, some say it relates to the Norse god of storms who was often drawn with cats and dogs.
12. Sink or Swim
The saying to “sink or swim” relates to the idea that someone is given a difficult task and is not provided any support before they start it. It’s often paired with the metaphor discussed earlier – to “be thrown in the deep end”. Both sayings refer to the same concept: that you’re given a difficult task and you will learn to either succeed straight away or fail. There’s no other option.
13. Still waters Run Deep
This saying refers to the idea that people who are quiet may nonetheless be powerful and passionate. It reminds us not to underestimate placid people and respect them. It’s also used to say that you should get to know quiet people because they may surprise you with their intellect and thoughtfulness.
14. Talking under Water
The saying that someone can talk underwater isn’t to say that they literally can talk underwater. It’s used figuratively to state that they are a very talkative person. We might say “she talks so much that she could probably talk underwater.” It’s usually used derogatively to talk about someone who talks too much – a frustrating amount. We can also use similar terms like “she can talk under wet cement.”
15. The Well has Run Dry
When a well runs dry, there is no water left over. What was once a source of lots of fresh water no longer delivers anything. We use this term in different contexts to explain something that no longer works. You might even say it when referring to someone who is too exhausted to continue a marathon or someone who’s tired at the end of the day and cannot think anymore. Their well has run dry – they’re too exhausted to go on.
16. To be Under Water
To say someone is underwater is to say they’re no longer coping with a situation. You can also say that their “head is underwater”. This often relates to people who are in excessive amounts of debt that they cannot finance. It might also be used to refer to someone who is in a sports league that is too hard for them. A third instance when it’s used is when you’re too busy to take on any more work.
17. To Trouble the Water
Someone who troubles the water is a person who is a troublemaker. Consider a pond that is clear, clean and still. A person who troubles the water might dive-bomb into the sea and spoil the smooth clear surface. They may also “poison the water”, indicating the same thing: they have ruined a nice thing.
18. Water under the Bridge
When we say “it’s water under the bridge”, we are saying that something that’s happened in the past is no longer of concern to you. We often use this proverb when we’re talking about a feud or disagreement that both parties have now gotten past. There is no longer any “bad blood” or resentment between the two of them.
19. Watered Down
Literally, a substance that has been watered down is no longer as potent as it was in its pure form. We water down things like alcohol and coffee to make it more palatable for drinking.
But metaphorically, we use this saying when we talk about anything that is not as strong as it once was. We might say that a law was watered down so that it would pass with bipartisan support in congress. Similarly, we might say a speech was watered down if it has been edited so the language wasn’t as strong.
20. Wet behind the Ears
Newborn animals need to be dried off to get the birth fluids off them. Often, cleaning behind the ears is the last thing that is dried off. So, to say someone is wet behind the ears is to relate them to a newborn animal.
We use the saying to imply that someone is young, innocent, or new to something that they are doing.
21. Wet your Whistle
To wet your whistle is to have a drink, where the “whistle” in this analogy is the mouth. This can be used to talk about water, for example when someone is very thirsty and needs a drink of water. But it is also very regularly talked about drinking alcohol. Imagine a group of workmen finishing a long day in the mine. They might finish their shift and say “let’s wet or whistles” – meaning it’s time to go to the pub.
22. When it Rains it Pours
The saying “when it rains it pours” is to refer to the idea that someone is getting a lot of success all at once. The saying comes from the idea that a long drought is often broken by a significant amount of rain all at once. Figuratively, you might use this saying when someone hasn’t won much money in a Casino for a while, but suddenly wins several bets all in a row.
23. You can lead a Horse to Water but you cannot make him Drink
This proverb relates to horses who stubbornly refuse to drink water. Today, we use the phrase to refer to someone who you have tried to help out through guidance and support, but who still fails to help themselves. For example, a teacher who has given hints and clues to a student might say this if the student fails due to their lack of studying or failure to listen closely to the teacher’s hints.
Personification Metaphors Describing Water
The following metaphors can be used in writing to describe water in ways that might paint a vivid picture in the reader’s minds. These phrases below are a specific type of metaphor called personification – meaning to give the traits of humans and sentient beings to non-sentient things.
24. The Water Roared
We can picture roaring water to be flowing so strongly that it makes a loud sound that’s almost like a lion’s roar. We’ll often find this type of water in rapids or waterfalls. Of course, it cannot roar – only animals roar. But nonetheless, to say that the water roared helps us to create a vivid image in our minds.
25. Whispering Water
Water that whispers is the opposite of those that roar. This sort of water might move at a trickle but still make a quiet, calming noise. You might even say “the whispering water calmed me.” You could imagine that this is the case in a fountain feature in someone’s courtyard.
26. The Water Hugged the Valleys
If we were to look at rivers from an airplane, we would see that it tends to follow valleys. In fact, it likely formed those valleys. The simple answer for this is that it is pulled down by gravity, so it will always move downhill.
By saying it hugs the valleys gives it a certain rhetorical flair. Hugging something is to stay close to it – indeed, to press yourself up against it. So when a river “hugs” valleys, it sticks closely to them.
27. The Water Searched for the Sea
Staying in the airplane, you can imagine following the river with your eyes you’ll see that it slowly makes its way toward the ocean. It might even break off into different sections and different sections take a different path down the hills until one part of the river finally meets the ocean. To describe this, we could say that the rivers are in search for the sea.
28. The Water is a Snake
Lastly, when looking from the sky, you might see that the rivers look like a snake weaving its way through the valleys. Just like a snake, the water weaves and bends and is rarely moving in a straight line. In fact, in Indigenous Australian songlines, rivers are often metaphorically described as snakes – see The Rainbow Serpent.
Water is required to provide us with life. Thus, it makes sense that we have so many sayings, proverbs, metaphors, analogies, and idioms in our language to describe water. This list is by no means exhaustive but can help writers to think about ways to write in ways that are descriptive and give us a vivid image in our minds.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.