Streams Meander, and So Do IApr 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
“Water, water idioms everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Have you ever wondered about the large number of idiomatic expressions that reference water?
Of course you haven’t. But you probably won’t be surprised to know that I have. Just recently, however—it hasn’t been a lifelong exploration into the linguistics of liquidity. Let me explain.
The April issue of Mountain Home has come to be known as the Fishue—it’s the start of trout season, so we feature stories about fish, fishing, and, by extension (that’s my rationale, anyway), water, without which we’d have no fish, or us, for that matter. Since this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Clean Water Act, my stream of consciousness meandered in that direction.
Then it hit a gravel bar.
I’d been thinking about water, with the oft-quoted “...water, water everywhere...” phrase popping in and out of my head just like a bobber on a pond’s surface. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a morality tale about a sailor on a voyage who kills a helpful albatross on a whim, thereby bringing bad luck to everyone on board. So as I was casting about in this watery world, rereading the poem, pondering the meaning of it all, I found myself hooked, lined, and sinkered into perusing various lists of idiomatic expressions that include water. What fun, and what a topic-appropriate digression! Any old port in the deadline-avoidance storm, right?
Anyhow, here are just a few, in no particular order—most of their meanings are self-evident, especially if you are a native speaker (these are English idioms—other languages, of course, have their own, and I do believe becoming fluent in idioms is one of the hardest things to master when learning a language that is not your own).
Tall glass of water (remember that line from the movie Tombstone, when Dana Delaney’s character first sees Kurt Russell’s?), you can lead a horse to water, in hot water, drink like a fish, a fish out of water, dead in the water, head above water, water under the bridge, water over the dam, tread water, come hell or high water, dip your toes in the water, turn water into wine, blood is thicker than water, like water off a duck’s back, like a duck to water, (something) doesn’t hold water, test the waters, watering hole, muddy the waters, dull as dishwater, still waters run deep, blow (something) out of the water, cast your bread upon the water (sunfish like bread, BTW), walk on water, throw the baby out with the bathwater, and, in the immortal words of Johnny Cash, “How high’s the water, Mama?” (“Five feet high and risin’,” in case you wondered.)
Water, water everywhere ...
As for the Clean Water Act, it is a dizzying array of ever-changing definitions, authorizations, standards, requirements, exemptions, and acronyms—talk about muddying the waters. It came about after seventy-five years or so of various rather ineffectual pieces of water-based legislation. But with society in flux during the 1960s, Ohio’s Cayuhoga River catching on fire (and not for the first time), the Great Lakes not so great, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the environment began getting some positive attention. Legislators proposed a series of amendments to the existing Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Senate passed the amended version on November 2, 1971, the House passed it on March 29 of 1972, and President Richard Nixon vetoed it on October 17. The Senate overrode his veto on the same day, the House followed suit the next day, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 became law on October 18 of that year.
Waters protected under the CWA are those surface waters, not ground waters, defined (sort of ) as having a “significant nexus” to “navigable waters.” “Significant nexus” has, shall we say, a fluid definition, which, according to Wikipedia, remains “open to judicial interpretation.”
While surface water qualities have generally improved, some of the specific goals established fifty years ago with the passage of the CWA have not been realized, those being: “to make all U.S. waters fishable and swimmable by 1983; to have zero water pollution discharge by 1985; to prohibit toxic amounts of toxic pollutants.” National organizations such as Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited have stepped in with resources to help keep fishing streams and waterfowl habitat healthy; locally, the Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, the Babb Creek Watershed Association, and the Tioga County Concerned Citizens Committee have made clean streams, and cleaning up streams, their business.
Water is essential to life as we know it, a fact that, in itself, likely accounts for the plentiful platitudes referencing that vital hydrogen/oxygen combo. To date we’ve found no substitute for it. Oh, sure, we can recycle wastewater (that polite euphemism for, well, you know). But, unless you’re Matt Damon’s character stuck on Mars, who wants to go that route? You can lead me to it, but I don’t want to drink it.
It’s up to each human on this big blue ball to ensure that “fish out of water” remains an idiom, with no basis in fact. Some of the last few lines of Coleridge’s cautionary tale, told by the man with the “glittering eye,” serve as simple but powerful instructions: love all creatures, wet or dry, “For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.”
I think that means if we don’t want to be dead in the water, with an albatross around our collective neck, we need to remember everything is connected, come hell or high water.