I am fairly happy with the meaning of this phrase but am wondering are there any good theories on where it originated?

I have one theory that makes sense in an Irish context. Dotted around Ireland we have holy wells. These wells were originally pagan but became Christianised.

The story is that if you visit the holy well you will have good luck if you honour the well or perform some kind of ritual.

I imagine that some souls thought they could keep returning to the well to garner more and more good luck. This isn't sustainable and eventually the well will dry up for them metaphorically.

I have a friend who frequents such a well and I think he is overdoing it! His language is "I must go back to the well now".

I am not sure if I think the origin is the obvious one about a water well: you wouldn't go back to a water well --- you would just use it regularly I think.

Any opinions are welcome and thank you.

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    I don't think you need such a narrow understanding of well. To go back to the well means to return to the source [of something valued]. Well originally meant any source from which water emerged from the earth -- a 'spring', or 'fount', not just a dug well -- and that meaning was transferred quite early to the source of other good things: the 'well of life' is found in the early 9th century. – StoneyB Dec 15 '14 at 20:55
  • These holy wells are not generally dug wells: "A holy well or sacred spring is a spring or other small body of water revered either in a Pagan or Christian context, often both." – JP McCarthy Dec 15 '14 at 20:58
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    The point is that well is figurative for source and need not be tied to a particular sort or characer of well. – StoneyB Dec 15 '14 at 21:16

It appears there in not much on this expression. Your assumption of the sacred wells with people visiting them regularly is very suggestive, but according to The Dictionary of American Slang, the expression is quite recent:

  • go back to the well (verb phrase):

    • To return to a reliable source : We just kept going back to the well and he just kept making it (1980s+)

Go back to the well

  • To return to specific resource or source of information.(United States).

Ngram unluckily is not helpful because the expression is often not used in the context we are considering here.


another shade of meaning comes from the nonprofit/philanthropic world, to "go back to the well" is to return to a reliable or generous source of financing for an additional ask (yet doing so carefully)

  • 1
    Hello, John. The previous answer contains acceptable references (even though one could wish for more substantial explanations, given with more conviction, from these sources). Answers without references usually sound like mere opinion (and may well be mere opinion), and are not what are required on ELU. Also, the question asks about the origin of the phrase rather than domains it is now used in. This would be fine in a 'comment', but you have to tread the same path everyone else here has done to amass the 50 rep points needed. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '18 at 1:38

We are going to the well. But can you drink? A tough close sports game. (Down to the wire). But can you drink? Means can you win.

  • This doesn't answer the question that was asked. – JP McCarthy Jun 15 at 9:21

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