(1) who specifically, or at least when specifically, did originate the phrase?

{Example answer - "that was one of Shakespeare's!"}

(2) why?

(3) when first did someone screw up and use "..dishwater"? why? who?

Thank you.

(PS note that in print, apparently "...dishwater" become more popular from about the 1970s. I am interested in the above three questions, if anyone has any info on those three specific questions, thank you in advance.)

BTW I appreciate this question may be "easily answered by some reference book", if so, please (A) tell me the book and (B) close the question. (I'm afraid I couldn't find anything.)

  • 2
    The switch from ditchwater to dishwater is very likely to have been in speech, since they sound very much alike. So it's going to be undocumented. (Although you might be able to figure out roughly when and where the switch happened.) Sep 10, 2014 at 12:12
  • Peter: an excellent insight! thanks. perhaps someone knows of a paper on it or some such. TBC many of my questions remain, for example, what the hell is so dull about ditchwater? (For example - was it - I'm guessing - common to work with ditchwater, but that was considered dull compared to some other now-unknown water-related profession?? or??) {My wild guess, it's extremely unlikely it meant dull as in optical properties, 200-300 yrs ago.}
    – Fattie
    Sep 10, 2014 at 12:14
  • There's a bit about it here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/193364/… Sep 10, 2014 at 12:20
  • 1
    Dull has a variety of meanings, but the "boring" sense was introduced with Shakepeare. It existed in other senses (particularly with regard to being a dullard) before then.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2014 at 12:39
  • 1
    Looking in an 1780 dictionary, we see there are several definitions of dull: stupid, doltish, blockish, unapprehensive; ... sluggish, heavy, slow of motion. The second set of definitions (sluggish, heavy, slow of motion) can certainly be applied to ditchwater. So this seems to be a simile like "he lies like a rug", where it's a pun on two senses of a word. Sep 10, 2014 at 13:56

1 Answer 1


OED has a very early citation:

c1394 P. Pt. Crede 375 Þey ben digne as dich water þat dogges in bayteþ.

In this case, digne doesn't mean dull, it's related to dignity and OED has it defined as "Having a great opinion of one's own worth; proud, haughty, disdainful; (cf. ‘stinking with pride’)".

Ditchwater is generally muddy and not clear: it's dull. And it can be smelly. The translation appears to be "They are as smelly" [or "Their pride stinks"] "as ditchwater that dogs have drunk from."

Google Books has "dull as dishwater" appearing in The Amaranth published in Boston in 1854.

  • 1
    Baiteth (3s bait): Said of horses or other beasts: To take food, to feed, esp. at a stage of a journey. [OED again]
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2014 at 12:38
  • But was the not shiny definition of dull more recent than the phrase dull as ditchwater? This 1780 dictionary doesn't have it. It does have the definition sluggish, heavy, slow of motion, which would apply to ditchwater. The OED has a citation (1590) Thenceforth her waters wexed dull and slow for this definition, so it could be applied to water. Sep 10, 2014 at 14:03
  • The online OED has no citations at all for the not shiny sense.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2014 at 14:10
  • I noticed. But one of the citations of Shakespeare (Sparkles this Stone as it was wont, or is't not Too dull for your good wearing?) listed in the overcast sense (7b) clearly belongs in the not shiny sense, as do some of the later ones. So was Shakespeare's usage a metaphor using the overcast sense, or was dull generally used with that meaning as early as 1600? Sep 10, 2014 at 14:33
  • 2
    @JoeBlow shiny: 1580s
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2014 at 14:47

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