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What does "carry water for" mean in the following context?

When Comey testified, there was nobody carrying water for the White House on the Senate Russia probe -- even though half of the panel is comprised of Senate Republicans. But that changed Tuesday, with a variety of Republicans coming to Sessions' (and the White House's) aide.

The phrase doesn't appear in Merriam-Webster or The Phrase Finder. It also doesn't appear in the Online Etymology Dictionary.

  • Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. – Hot Licks Jun 15 '17 at 11:56
  • No one sees a connection to Deuteronomy 29:11 and Joshua 9:23? – michael.hor257k Jun 16 '17 at 18:35
  • The question asks about an idiomatic term that many dictionaries don't cover, and at this point it also shows some research to that effect. Under the circumstances, closing the question for lack of research seems unjustified. – Sven Yargs Jun 16 '17 at 20:18
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The Word Detective (Issue of July 21, 2004) has a fairly detailed treatment of the phrase, which places the origins of the figurative sense of the term in the 1970s.

(While, given the nature of the site, The Word Detective doesn't itself include supportive reference, the entries are based on solid research and, as such, it has a high reputation.)

Dear Word Detective: I have been seeing the phrase "to carry water" on a large number of mostly political weblogs, generally used in a pejorative sense to imply that the person referred to is a lackey or toady to a bad person or for an unrighteous cause, as in "Alan Colmes, despite his liberal ethos, continues to carry water for Sean Hannity." What's the origin of the phrase "to carry water," and how did it come by its present connotations?

...

"To carry someone's water" does indeed mean to occupy a subservient position, to do the bidding, the menial tasks, and frequently the dirty work, of a more powerful person, and is most often used in a political context. A junior member of Congress, for instance, who calls a press conference to vigorously denounce criticisms of party elders might be said to be "carrying water" for those criticized. The implication of "carrying someone's water" is that the underling is acting not on personal initiative but at the behest, either explicit or perceived, of more powerful figures. To describe a person as "carrying water for" someone else is pejorative and a subjective judgment, implying that the person is acting only as a proxy for a more important person, so one person's "water carrier" may well be another's "loyal ally."

"To carry someone's water" seems to have appeared in the late 1970s in the figurative sense in which it is now most often used, and almost certainly sprang from sports, where the position of "water boy," charged with catering to the players' comfort (including supplying them with water and the like), is the lowest rung in the team hierarchy.

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    For my part, I am very wary of secondary sources. They, up to and including OED, are replete with errors. Evan Morris is of course respectable, not to mention d---d funny. He did not in 2004, however, have the benefit of, for example, OED's phrase entry, updated March, 2015. The enormous treasure of readily available primary source material is also latter day, and so many secondary sources are not to be faulted for a deficiency of research, but rather an inadvertent deficiency of resources. I digress: "comments are not for discussion" is the watchphrase here. – JEL Jun 16 '17 at 17:53
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A definition that conveys the full range of the 'carry water' phrase's meaning, from pejorative to neutral, is this from OED:

to be the lackey of; to do the bidding of; to serve the interests of

OED notes that the use is US colloquial, and chiefly political. Observe also that the first element of the tricolon in the definition, "to be the lackey of", is distinctly pejorative; the second element is less so; the third element is neutral or complimentary, especially as used in a political context, given that politicians ostensibly do the job to serve others' interests.

Attestation in OED begins in the early 1960s with a splendid extended metaphor:

1963 R. McA. Brown tr. G. Casalis Portrait K. Barth ii. 68 The Russian authorities and the German communists..soon discovered that [Barth]..was not their man and that they had been deceived if they counted on him to carry water for the mill of eastern propaganda [Fr. pour apporter de l'eau au moulin de la propagande orientale].

The quote, as attestation, suggests the origin of the phrase may have been a similar French phrase. However, I find a much simpler derivation from this earlier phrase,

to carry water on both shoulders.

Like 'to carry water', 'to carry water on both shoulders' is and was used chiefly in political contexts. From its appearance only as early as 1862 in British newspapers, I surmise the phrase had a US origin. It was common in the US popular press during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as much earlier and later. The essential meaning is

to serve dual, not necessarily compatible, interests.

A example of linking use is this from The Cincinnati Enquirer, 06 Sep 1959 (paywalled):

On that labor reform bill, Sen. Jack Kennedy can wind up pretty wet, trying to carry water on his union shoulder.

The use not only antedates the early use of 'to carry water' in the translation from French, it implicates the other shoulder, but does not outright mention it.

Looking at early uses of the extended phrase, I easily traced it back an additional 136 years, to Montrose Gazette, and Susquehanna County Herald (Montrose, Pennsylvania), 19 Sep 1823 (paywalled):

The people in the northern secton of the state well know Charles Miner; they know that he is a bitter federalist, he will carry water on both shoulders to suit his own purposes; but when he is sounded to the heart, there is "rottenness in Denmark."

While the 1823 use is pejorative, as are many others, with suggestions of hypocrisy if not slavishness, the phrase is not always or only used in a derogatory sense. Sometimes those represented as carrying water for others on both shoulders, just as those today who simply carry water for others, are presented in a valiant, even heroic light.

However, none of the above should be construed as exculpation of the Republicans now 'carrying water' for, that is, coming to the aid of the White House. Their response after the fact must be seen as revelatory of the same "rottenness in Denmark", that is, self-interest and hypocrisy, ascribed to Miner in 1823.

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It is an idiomatic expression meaning:

Carry water for (someone):

To support a person, organization, or cause that one would not in reality endorse, as due to pressure, force, or pragmatic reasons.

  • Once elected to congress, I soon realized that you must carry water for many groups that run contrary to your own personal politics. Though I personally found him repugnant, I carried water for him for two years because I thought it would open up many career opportunities.

(The Free Dictionary)

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    Beyond simply "supporting", there is also usually a connotation of acting like a lackey. – fixer1234 Jun 14 '17 at 21:51
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    The Free Dictionary entry is simply a rewording of the entry for "carry water for" in Wiktionary [en.wiktionary.org/wiki/carry_water_for], which further gives five sourced and dated citations to support, or illustrate, their definition. I suspect the Free Dictionary "illustration" is simply made-up, especially as there no note of the source. Caveat emptor, when it comes to thefreedictionary.com! – Robin Hamilton Jun 15 '17 at 2:38
  • @RobinHamilton - you mean that the definition is incorrect? – user66974 Jun 15 '17 at 5:46
  • No, simply that it's ripped-off. I can't prove it (other than the negative that the sentence doesn't show up on google) but I strongly suspect that the "citation" is a total fabrication. This is the third time in the last 24 hours that I've found exactly this happen with thefreedictionary. It's not a site with any independent authority. Also, in lifting (without acknowledgement) from Wiktionary, they're using the work of volunteers, placed in the public domain, for commercial purposes. This offends me. – Robin Hamilton Jun 15 '17 at 6:29
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    @RobinHamilton - I junderstand, but I like the definition and I think it is correct. It fits the context and answers the question. Sorry if you feel offended. – user66974 Jun 15 '17 at 6:55

protected by NVZ Nov 12 '17 at 9:09

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