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What's the origin/background of the phrase "water under the bridge"? To what does it allude?

I understand it means to let bygones be bygones--to move on from the past. But I don't think I understand what water and the bridge represent.

6

I could not find earlier mention in English, but in French several expressions using the component water under the bridge with the acception of time passing only in one direction can be found in the sayings:

"Laisser passer l'eau sous les ponts"

(to let water flow under the bridge, meaning to let it go)

and

" Il passera bien de l'eau sous les ponts"

(There will be lot of water flowing under the bridge meaning it'll happen in a long time)

Both expressiosn can be found in the 18th century Dictionnaire de l'académie française http://books.google.fr

  • Wow! This is really cool. – Jeromy French May 23 '14 at 20:45
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The idiom, water under the bridge is akin to another expression What's done is done, which means it is too late and pointless to change the past, too much water has flowed; i.e. time stands still for no one.

If you have ever tried to stop the flow of a river, (and who hasn't?) the comparison and meaning of water under the bridge becomes clearer. The person is saying they have moved forward with their life, the matter is now unimportant and not worthy of further consideration. As the river flows on, so does life. Since we often associate running water with rivers, and where there are rivers there are usually bridges, water under the bridge is similar to a fixed phrase, or chunk of language (you also have the expression bridge over water). One could argue that the bridge represents the permanent present, while the river represents life and time which marches inexorably forward.

The earliest example I found is in 1934. A song entitled Water Under the Bridge , written by Paul Francis Webster, Lew Pollack and performed by Fred Waring. The title was suggested by Ed Sullivan. The first line of the chorus begins

We kissed and love flowed thru my heart like the water under the bridge

enter image description here

Based only on this snippet, (in vain I tried to find the lyrics online), it appears the meaning of the idiom was not familiar at the time.

But it might explain its appearance in 1935.

"The Sugar Bulletin, 1935-1936"
NEW ORLEANS, LA., OCTOBER 1, 1935

enter image description here

Hardly the stuff of poetry, but earlier instances I did not find.

  • In you first example "we kissed..." the meaning of "under the bridge" does not seem to have a connotation of "time passing by irreversibly" that we can found in habitual uses of the phrase and in the definition you're giving. The lyricist played with the usual meaning here. – P. O. May 23 '14 at 13:00
  • The first line of the song was "Time passes by, motionless as in a dream". This suggests that the lyricist was familiar with the usual meaning. There are definitely earlier instances (I could find one from 1920, and there are a number in the early 1930s ... see my answer). – Peter Shor May 23 '14 at 13:05
  • @JoBedard I agree, that's why I said: "it appears the meaning of this idiom was not familiar at the time" and then gave a second instance where the meaning was clear. – Mari-Lou A May 23 '14 at 17:04
  • I suspected that water represents the passage of time. What, then, does the bridge suggest? A fixed point against which we perceive that passing? – Jeromy French May 23 '14 at 20:48
  • @JeromyFrench We commonly associate water flowing with rivers, and where there are rivers there are usually bridges. Water under the bridge is almost a fixed phrase, or chunk of language. You also have the expression a bridge over water. But I digress, one could argue that the bridge represents the permanent present, while the river (water) represents life and time which marches inexorably forward. – Mari-Lou A May 24 '14 at 18:47
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The earliest use I can find of it comes from 1920, from a compilation of the U.K. "Parliamentary Debates."

Google books

Time after time the best intentions have fallen fruitless, the very highest statesmanship has been brought to bear upon the problem, but it has all passed like water under the bridge.

The OED has two earlier citations:

1913 Wireless World I. 34/1 Much water has flowed under London Bridge since those days.

1914 Kipling Let. 15 Sept. in Ld. Birkenhead Rudyard Kipling (1978) xviii. 279 Your articles..are a little too remote..but of course—much water, or shall we say much blood, has flowed under the bridges since they were written.

However, from looking at Google books, this expression seems only seems to have become relatively common around 1930 in the U.S.A.

  • 1
    The 1920's find is really a metaphor, "like water under the bridge", it's easy to imagine that the the adage/idiom followed soon after. But well done in tracking it done. How did you do it?! – Mari-Lou A May 23 '14 at 17:20
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water under the bridge

something that has happened and cannot be changed I should probably have asked for more money when I was offered the job, but hey, that's water under the bridge now.

That's happened in the past, cannot be undone, and can no longer be a consideration. The proverb comes from the saying: 'A lot of water has flowed (passed, gone) over the dam (under the bridge.) 'Under the bridge' is British and is the oldest part of the proverb. 'Over the dam' is its American variant.

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I have located a form of its use in 1847, in a piece entitled "Manzoni" in the New Monthly Magazine and Humorist: Part the Third, 1847. On second inspection the piece was published at least 3 years earlier, in 1844 at the latest, prior to being reprieved in The New Monthly Magazine.

"It has passed under the bridge"

Although the precise expression of "water under the bridge", I believe the usage refers to the eponymous Manzoni considering what was left behind, both physically and emotionally.

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:17

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