carry the water for

Discussion in 'English Only' started by reimasa, Apr 19, 2008.

  1. reimasa Member

    Japan, Japanese
    This is from the movie, "Dave." I don't understand the meaning of the following line.
    "We're up here trying to carry the water for him."
    Will you tell me the meaning of the line and is the phrase often used in politics?
  2. "carry the water" for someone means do something (usually hard and unpleasant, yet necessary) for someone, on their behalf and instead of them whereas normally they would be supposed to do it themselves.
  3. Tabac Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest (USA)
    U. S. - English
    I've never heard the expression (but it is quite descriptive). Is it strictly British?
  4. Boston Dude Banned

    English of USA
    From the context which you gave and from what I think--it just sounds like some people are going to try to transport, or move, water for someone. If it is an expression that is colloquial, it is beyond my knowledge.
  5. curious98 Member

    Barcelona (Spain)
    Spanish, Emglish, French
    Setwale charm is English, so he should know. At any rate, it seems obvious that the actual meaning is that whoever said the phrase was complaing of having to do something unpleasant on someone else's account without received any credit for it.
  6. bibliolept

    bibliolept Senior Member

    Northern California
    AE, Español
    I've heard it before, but I couldn't tell you whether these contexts were BE or not contemporary.

    We can't tell in what spirit the phrase is used. Yes, the speaker is saying that he, and others, are doing unpleasant or hard work on behalf of another person. However, you can't tell whether he feels that they're neglected or underappreciated, whether he is complaining about the workload, whether he's proud, or whether he's making a factual, if dramatically-phrased, statement.
  7. reimasa Member

    Japan, Japanese
    Hello, Setwale charm, Tabac, Boston Dude, curious 98 and bibliolept. Thank you so much for replying to my question. Now I understand very much. Thank you again.
  8. Oh, my! I won't be able to tell you whether it is strictly British or not, I have only heard it twice or thrice perhaps myself, so I agree, it is not very common.
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    The image the phrase gives me is that of the "waterboy" who brings water to the players on a sports team. I am also reminded of the Biblical phrase "hewers of wood and drawers of water", with the idea being that the work is necessary, but laborious and menial.
  10. reimasa Member

    Japan, Japanese
    Setwale Charm and GreenWhiteBlue, thank you so much for follow-up reply.
    Now I understand more.
  11. curious98 Member

    Barcelona (Spain)
    Spanish, Emglish, French
    As I said in another post I'm already learning a lot of English in this Forum...
  12. rentatrip New Member

    To quote Rush Limbaugh , who uses the term frequently (politically)-"They [the liberal media] continue to carry the "Left's" water on this issue..."- as a phrase or expression the term is used to illustrate that one group or person willingly supports another person or group. Often it is used when the support is given to a less than honorable issue with obvious faults , in any case it is meant to label in effect the person who needs the water carried could not proceed without the help of the carrier---
    I believe this originates in the old story of "Gunga Dinn" - a lowly native of India who labored under hardship to carry water for the British Troops .
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2009
  13. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I'm amazed that people see this expression as uncommon-- in AE you see it all the time, but I'd have to add, without the definite article.

    To "carry water for" someone means to be their lackey, and it is often used in political discourse to refer to someone who goes along uncritically.

    "I'm not here to carry water for so-and-so" means "I'm not here to defend him," and is a defensive assertion (probably by so-and-so's lackey) that he is "his own man," not beholden or dependent on those who call the shots.

    In the 18th century, those who carried the King's water tended his chamber pot, by the way. There was no official title involved of course, but "water carrier" came to be used facetiously to signify a lackey who was particularly low in the courtly hierarchy.

    Again, I want to emphasize that the phrase I'm so familiar with does not contain the definite article.
  14. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Interesting: I'd never come across either "carry [the] water for someone" or "carry someone's water", and I'd have had difficulty working out what it meant.

    The second version actually sounds quite unpleasant:eek:
  15. reimasa Member

    Japan, Japanese
    Rentatrip and foxfirebrand, thank you for explaining the phrase in detail. Loob, thank you for the comment.
  16. silvicrima

    silvicrima Senior Member

    Spanish, Spain
    In politics, I guess it could also be like "doing the dirty work".
  17. reimasa Member

    Japan, Japanese
    Silvicrima, thank you for a good answer.
  18. JudeMama

    JudeMama Senior Member

    USA - Chicago suburbs
    American English
    This phrase is absolutely AE as well as BE.

    I've heard (and used) it many times!

    Also done it once or twice. :rolleyes:
  19. Roscoe Pound New Member

    English - US
    In golf, to "carry the water" means to hit the ball over a water hazard (a pond).
    This implies the confidence to "go for it" and is the opposite of "laying up", which means taking shorter, less risky shots in order to circumvent the hazard. Just saw these terms used in a Viagra ad (on the ESPN website) and found this discussion in the course of my research into their meaning.
  20. ekbatana Senior Member

    Innsbruck, Austria
    German Austria
    Does it have a similar or even identical meaning to "to push paper"?
  21. George French Senior Member

    English - UK
    As far as I can see from the rest of the posts this is the nearest to the truth.... Nevertheless, I could adjust it slightly...

    "carry the water" for someone means do something for someone to give them support.

    Mind you; trying to find some corroboration for my statement, or anyone else's posts, is not easy...


    Water is essential for a human. Thus "The carring of water is an essential supporting task for anyone.." both figuratively and/or in practise.
  22. kingharis New Member

    I first heard this expression in German - actually, a related expression. It was used for a soccer player who did the dirty defensive work for the stars and was referred to as a "Wassertraeger," or "water carrier."
    I believe the expression actually originates from cycling, where the star cyclist doesn't carry any water (to stay light) but his teammates do and let him drink it (so he's more likely to win).

    That seems to comport with the meaning of "carry the water for someone," since everyone seems to agree that it means doing the less fun/glamorous part of a greater task.
  23. UURev New Member

    Cambridge, MA, USA
    As an American, I've heard "carry the water for" many times, both pejoratively and positively. I'm about to use it in a message to a colleague in which I'm offering to "carry the water for" him and others--in this case, to shoulder the burden of a shared endeavor in which he arguably has the greater interest.
  24. dharasty Senior Member

    American English
    None of the answers in this thread (nor the current Wiktionary entry) seem to capture the nuance that I take in this phrase. I figure the origin is certainly from -- literally -- doing someone's work by retrieving water for them.

    But I don't take it to mean simply "do someone's work". Or even "do someone's dirty work". The nuance that I almost always associate with the idiom might be captured in this example:

    Alan kept needling my co-workers to get their status reports submitted on time; but after seeing their glares, he realized he didn't have to carry water for the boss on this one.

    The boss didn't ask Alan to do this task: it was not assigned. And it is not particularly menial or degrading work. Rather, by trying to further the boss's interest even over his own, that to me is "carrying someone's water".

    By way of comparison: if you were exemplifying a positive ideal, you might be said to be a "standard bearer". If you were leading a valiant cause, you might be said to be "carrying the torch". But if you are simply carrying out someone else's nagging.... to me, you are "carrying someone's water".

    An another example: The congressman's staff is "carrying his water" if they publicly support and cajole for his causes... even if they don't personally agree.

    Can anyone confirm they use it with this nuance? I just Googled the phrase, and I couldn't readily find any public quotes to back this up. So maybe it's just me who uses it this way!

    Last edited: Apr 17, 2014

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