What is the verb or the word indicating the following action: when you are in the water and you can't swim but you just move you extremities so hard and quickly to remain on the water surface and to not sink down.

  • 6
    Treading water is a controlled arm/leg motion designed to keep your head above water. But usually only people who know how to swim know how to tread water. flailing is what people who can't swim do when they find themselves in deep water. Indiscriminate flailing usually is not too successful for keeping someone's head above water.
    – Jim
    Jul 23, 2016 at 19:54
  • Well, if the water's not too rough one can simply lay on their back and float, with an occasional hand motion to stay stable. But if one doesn't know how to do that they generally flail, at least until they end up (literally) doing the dead man's float from exhaustion. Somewhere short of flailing (and suitable for rougher water than simply floating on ones back) is the dog paddle, which is a more or less upright posture. Many people who are not very good swimmers still can manage a passable dog paddle.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 23, 2016 at 21:01

4 Answers 4


To flounder might be a suitable word.

From Google:

Flounder struggle or stagger clumsily in mud or water. "he was floundering about in the shallow offshore waters".

(To do it successfully would probably be treading water).


You are looking for (to) float:

  • to stay on the surface of a liquid and not sink:
    • An empty bottle will float. You can float very easily in/on the Dead Sea because it's so salty.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • but what is the name of moving the hands and legs to quickly..i know there is a word for it but i cant remeber it
    – Amrmsmb
    Jul 23, 2016 at 18:39
  • To waver perhaps! merriam-webster.com/dictionary/waver
    – user66974
    Jul 23, 2016 at 18:43
  • Floating is just staying on the surface—the desperate fighting to stay on the surface that someone who can't swim goes through is hardly floating, more like flailing, like Jim said. Jul 23, 2016 at 20:23

When desperate, an individual has been said to "thrash the water to foam."

Less desperation will allow one with some presence of mind to flail, flounder, founder, and possibly fail in a struggle to survive drowning and suffocation.


The Wikipedia article on treading water has some terms for this, and whilst some imply person in the water can swim, dog paddle implies poor if any swimming ability.

More experienced swimmers often find their own method of staying above the surface. These techniques often involve sculling, flutter kick, and other unofficial techniques of staying above the surface. [...]
The eggbeater kick is a highly refined and efficient method [...].
The dog paddle is a simple style often used instinctively by children. It involves waving both hands & legs randomly while "on all fours".

And another dog paddle definition from O-D

An elementary swimming stroke in which the swimmer beats at the water with the hands in a manner resembling a swimming dog

  • The description of the "dog paddle" is incorrect.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 24, 2016 at 3:48
  • @HotLicks I've added a second alternate definition, but it seems equivalent to first one. What was the problem in the first one?
    – k1eran
    Jul 24, 2016 at 10:55
  • It's not "random", it's done primarily with the arms, and it's done in a roughly vertical posture.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 24, 2016 at 11:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.