Still water runs deep

Discussion in 'English Only' started by runnery, Apr 2, 2007.

  1. runnery Senior Member

    Hello everyone,

    All the time, in my head, I think the proverb"still water runs deep"has positive meaning, it is used to express someone who says very little often is very knowledgeable and has profound thought.However, after I use the google, I find that this proverb sometimes is also used in bad case.

    So, in native's view,when do you use this proverb? is it positive or passive? Is it also used to describe a person?


  2. winklepicker

    winklepicker Senior Member

    English (UK)
    Still waters run deep in my canon. I've never heard (BE) / I never heard (AE) it used negatively - can you give examples Runnery?
  3. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    I think it can be used either way. Thinking back to the times when I have used it, they have almost all been negative -- meaning "appearances are not always what they seem" or "don't be fooled by appearances" to use two more platitudes.
  4. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    I too, am intrigued by the negative application. I have always thought of it as being very positive and would be interested in some examples of its negative use.
  5. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    It means something that might not be big and attractive on the surface, can have a very deep person, I've heard this used about people.

    Let's say someone who isn't amazing looking, and two women are talking about him and one knows his personality, and how much of an incredible person he is, she might say "still waters run deep" - in comparison, that is, "still waters" (what might seem boring and not worthy of attention) "run deep" (have something very 'deep' about them, that is only far down'

    It's very like "Don't judge a book by its cover".

    [Edit] it's not negative, it's positive, or at most: informative on "there is more to meets the eye" but not negative.
  6. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I've never heard it used in this way. Anytime I've ever heard it, it was in the positive light of someone who is unobtrusive and quiet but who listens, learns and thinks well.
  7. runnery Senior Member

    Great to hear from you! I am extremely surprised by so many responses in such a short time.

    Here is one search result.
    (Silent and quiet conspirators or traitors are most dangerous; barking dogs never bite; the fox barks not when he would steal the lamb.)

    Anyway, I get better understanding of this proverb.

  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I suspect that some of the potential negative impact of the phrase comes from the fact that deep can have pejorative overtones: subtle, lingeringly malicious, devious, plotting etc.

    I've only heard still waters run deep.
  9. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It is a generally positive statement in my mind - usually referring to someone who is quietly competent but makes no fuss about it, or is extremely interesting but not particularly outspoken.

    I can also hear it being said about someone who is not openly opposing something but is suspected of working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn't happen.
  10. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    Looking it up on the internet maybe I've been wrong about my usage of this phrase. Admittedly I've never never looked it up before, but just used it as per my understanding of large bodies of water. Water, such as in a river or on beach, can be deceptive. On the surface it can appear quiet, calm and inviting, but underneath there may be eddies undertows, or other unseen dangers that are not apparent when just looking at the surface (looking at it superficially). So applying that to life I understood the phrase to be a cautionary admonition meaning things may appear nice, but there may be hidden complications, dangers, etc., that one is not aware of. It doesn't mean that there are necessarily dangers, but just that the possibility is there and one should be cautious. In essence, I just understood it as an admonition of caution.

    I would use it, for example, if my sister had a new boyfriend and I politely wanted to tell her to be careful -- "Be careful, he may seem like a nice guy, but still waters run deep."

    I don't know the history and derivation of the phrase, but if the page that Runnery linked to in post #9 can be believed it appears to have had its origins in a Shakespearean play, in which the meaning is negative. So if it is used in a positive sense these days (more than a negative one, anyway) then maybe it is an example of a phrase that underwent melioration. That, of course, is just a wild conjecture.
  11. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Shakespeare used a lot of proverbs and it can be a mistake to assume he coined them.

    Anyone who has been fishing in a river of any good size knows the truth of the statement. It's the shallow water which is broken and fast moving.
  12. Aurin

    Aurin Senior Member

    Alemania (alemán)
    We have the same proverb in German and I´ve heard it only in a positive sense.
  13. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    As a matter of interest, I've just run the phrase through my English literature data base and found that the following:

    Still water runs deep - 1 use (Zane Grey) with positive overtones.

    Still waters run deep - 10 uses - 5 negative, 2 positive, 3 hard to tell (more or less flatulent use of the expression).
  14. Meags New Member

    The proverb "still waters run deep" comes from the Latin "Altissima queaque flumina minimo sono labi" roughly this translates to the deepest rivers flow with the least sound. The proverb appears in Quintus Curtius's History of Alexander the Great, Book VII, Chapter iv, paragraph 13. Here, the proverb is attributed to the Bactriani people. At a banquet, Gobares issues this caution to Alexander's drunk and arrogant adversary, King Bessus. The proverb is joined with "a timid dog barks more violently than it bites." Gobares follows the proverb with detailed military advice. Gobares is almost attacked for his rather sobering advice.
  15. TheStillOne New Member

    Hi guys, thanks for all the contributions

    I found this one

    "Still waters run deep."

    Some rivers have rough surfaces with waves. That's usually because the water is shallow and there are rocks near the surface. But deep rivers have no rocks near the surface and the water is smooth and still. "Still waters run deep" means that people who are calm and tranquil on the outside, often have a strong, "deep" personality.

    • still (adjective) = calm, motionless
    • deep (adjective) = going far down

    Insighful stuff :)

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