Saturday, May 01, 2010

Problematic Idiom: “Water Under the Bridge”

Whenever people refer to something being “water under the bridge,” I think of all the other things that could also pass under bridges: leaves, twigs, fish, garbage, bloated corpses, a written record of a fight that two people may have had (which, though improbable, could exist and could possibly get tossed in a river that has a bridge over it). Also, water under the bridge might not necessarily be passing by quickly, which is the notion the idiom is trying to express. The body of water under the bridge could well be stagnant, in which case it could be lingering and stinging the nostrils of passersby with its stench. But perhaps the biggest problem I have with this particular turn of phrase is the water beneath a given bridge at a certain point in time is not necessarily an insignificant thing. Some bridges cross rivers that carry a large volume of water. The water could be used to generate electricity and may play a significant role in local agriculture. The most powerful bodies of water — rivers during a floods, let’s say — can violently change the land through which they flow and even drown people. They could even destroy the goddamn bridges that span them. So by comparing a thing to water under the bridge, not necessarily saying much. Or you’re saying a lot more than you might think.

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