What does it mean when you call someone a 'drink of water', like at the end of this clip from the Shawshank Redemption? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sD07V7Lwacc
It's intended as an insult from the context, but what does it mean?
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Meaning (of "long drink of water") is ambiguous, just generally meaning "tall", as reflected in answers here, though specific use can have connotations of "tall and attractive (man/woman)" or "lanky, gangly" (tall and awkward).
The origin appears to be Scottish, dating to Scots lang drink (1887), as suggested by the 1924 quote from Mo Nickels (MetaFilter), quoted by Little Eva.
The life and recollections of Doctor Duguid of Kilwinning, John Service, 1887, p. 103: “Stair had grown up into a great lang drink, and would faukled, as Robin Cummell said, if he fell.”
(I've put this at long drink of water at Wiktionary for reference.)
In the linked clip from The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman's character Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding refers to the "new fish," Andy Dufresne, as a "tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass." The "tall drink of water" part of this phrase is not derogatory or insulting and simply means that Dufresne is a tall, slender man.
The second half of the phrase---with a silver spoon up his ass---is, however, definitely meant to be denigrating and can be taken to mean that Andy Dufresne is a spoiled rich-boy, who's been raised in the "lap of luxury" or privilege. You see, 'Red' Redding is a downtrodden convict who is not---at first blush---terribly impressed with Andy Dufresne, whom 'Red' considers to be a "lightweight" who won't last very long in the rough environs of the Maine State Penitentiary. 'Red's' evaluation of Andy is dead wrong, of course, as time will tell.
More generally---that is, outside of this film and the penitentiary---the phrase is highly complimentary because, sometimes, there's nothing quite so pleasing or desirable to a gal as a, "tall drink of water!" (Thanks, KL.)
Tall drink of water
A man or woman that is tall, gorgeous, and super delicious. Like on a hot day, a tall drink of water is absolutely appealing.
Old slang for a visually appealing man or woman.
"Would you look at hunky man? He is one tall drink of water. I could drink that RIGHT up." see, The Urban Dictionary tall drink of water
I found the following etymological information online but cannot attest to its accuracy:
The term exists in two forms: long drink of water and tall drink of water. Most dictionaries do not have the expression and no dictionary I checked has any speculation about the etymology of the term. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term as "a tall man" and has a first citation of 1936, but with minimal effort I've been able to antedate it possibly to 1904, though it's not a strict use of it in metaphor:
1904 Daily Huron (South Dakota) "Makes a Big Hit" (May 7) p. 3: Then there is baby Patti, who is not much larger than a long drink of water and who is a marvel for a child.
The earliest for certain citation I have is this.
1924 Times (London, England) "The Speaker Defied" (May 10) p. 12: Mr. Kirkwood addressed his reproof to Lord Winterton, who, along with his colleagues, had protested against the defiance of the speaker's ruling. "Ye are not treating with Indians, ye big long drink of water," he shouted. Immediately the Speaker reproved the member for Dumbarton.
Another newspaper that quoted the same thing indicates that the speaker, Kirkwood, is a Scottish Labor party member, as also indicated by the "ye." There's nothing about the expression in the Dictionary of Scots Language.
posted by Mo Nickels, from Ask Meta Filter tall drink of water
Red Redding and his "Tall Drink of Water"
In college (in Maryland) in the 1970s, a freshman girl from Alabama looked me (a sophomore boy) over, and, apropos of nothing, said, "You sure are a tall drink of water!" I remember finding the assertion disconcerting, not least because I wasn't sure why she had chosen that idiomatic phrase—but I was somewhat grateful that she hadn't said, "How's the weather up there?"
A Google Books search for "tall drink of water" and "long drink of water" (a phrase that I've never heard used, but that I learned from Little Eva's answer) turns up first occurrences for each from the 1920s. From Robert Ritchie, Trails to Two Moons (September 1920):
For instance, after his fiery interview with Von Tromp, Strayman said casually to his assistant—A-Long-Drink-of-Water the town denominated this spare, rather sickly young man—"Something strange about that lawyer from the outside being Johnny-on-the-spot just when we've nabbed the Killer."
And from "The Young Man with No Brains," in Collier's (July 8, 1922):
He [Ephraim] had been sunning himself on the hotel veranda for perhaps ten minutes when Anne, with that tall, slim drink of water [Harold] gesticulating beside her, came hurrying up the path. “I say, old man," called the tall drink of water, as he loped up the steps, "have you heard the silly news?"
Both of these instances are from the United States, which makes the 1924 instance involving the Scottish MP (also cited in Little Eva's answer) all the more intriguing. Here is a discussion of the incident in George Saintsbury, A Last Scrap Book (1924) [combined snippets]:
We turn, my brethren, to the other incident, and the sole utterance of any note in it is the description by one member of another as "You great big long drink-of-water!" There may, of course, have been some esoteric meaning in this. Even exoterically, if the accuser intended to intimate the superiority of whisky to water or the necessity of a coalition between two things, both plentiful by Clyde-side, he could not be altogether condemned. But how flat it is, flat as is not even every drink of water! How destitute of the slightest laughter-provoking quality! How uninteresting! For in mere abuse there is nothing interesting; it is always as dull as the ditch-variety of the injured element to which the honourable gentleman was compared.
If the Scottish MP was invoking an idiomatic expression from his northern home, the reference was lost on Saintsbury, who obviously viewed it as an insult invented out of whole cloth.
But Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961) says (without offering any examples) that "long drink of water" goes back to the 19th century:
long drink of water. Unhappy-looking man: late C. 19–20.
The eighth edition of Partridge's dictionary (1984) substantially alters that definition to read "Tall, very thin man." That dictionary also notes a possibly related term from more-recent years: "long streak of misery," meaning "A (very) tall, thin person, even if not miserable looking."
Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) has this:
long drink of water A tall thin man, esp., but not necessarily, if dull or boring.
Hmmm. But Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) drops the "dull or boring" characterization:
a long (or tall) drink of water n phr by 1940s A very tall, thin person: [examples omitted].
And finally, John Gould, Maine Lingo (1975) asserts that in Maine "long drink of water" is used primarily to describe women or girls:
LONG DRINK Of water. Used to describe a tall person, and usually a female: "Migod, but she's a long drink of water!"
In my experience, this is an old-fashioned term used as or part of a compliment or a polite way to say that someone is very attractive. For example: Josie told her girlfriend, "Look at that man, girl. He is a tall drink of water." Meaning that the man is attractive, and not really concentrating on his being tall. I've also heard the phrase "cool drink of water". The user may also be attempting to convey that the person is unusually attractive (refreshingly so). The reason I think the term is old fashioned is that the only time I have heard it used is in a couple movies. For example, the 1998 film "The Wedding", starring Halle Berry, which is set in the 1950's. Which was a time when people in general were more polite and not as apt to just say whatever is on their mind as they are today.
"That tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass."
I've always heard it as "A tall drink of water" and taken it to mean a tall, slender person. It could be a female or a male, and not necessarily attractive. Google comes up with variations like long drink of water, tall glass of water, long, tall glass or drink, with some people only applying it to women, or some only to men. Some definitions carry the idea of attractiveness. Others suggest tall and attractive while some say it just means attractive (and not necessarily tall). "Refreshing" is a word that comes up often in definitions for the phrase. One even stated that it means tall and plain; "as uninteresting as a glass of water".
The Free Dictionary and Idiomsdictionary.net also give the following:
big drink of water/a tall drink of water 1. Fig. a very tall person. 2. Fig. a boring person or thing.
I have always understood it to mean someone tall and refreshingly good looking that can slake one's metaphorical thirst, but apparently I was mistaken. The more I look, the more I find "tall slender person".
That would fit with how "Red" sees Andy, as a tall, slender person who looks like he's led a life of privilege.
Perhaps related, the rather less complimentary Northern British "lanky streak of piss."
"A tall drink of water" is not a derogatory comment. It was used by men to indicate that a woman was like a "long/tall glass of water to a hot, thirsty man," saying in essence she is pretty. The "long" part was usually an indication of her height or more accordingly to her legs. The actor is saying the man he is choosing is "good looking" - as could be immodestly said of a tall, blonde, fairly young, man; newly entering into a male prison...