I came across this phrase reading E.M.Forster's Maurice,

He(Clive Durham) had neither the blind faith in tutors and lec-tures that was held by Maurice and his set nor the contempt professed by Fetherstonhaugh. "You can always learn something from an older man, even if he hasn't read the latest Germans." They argued a little about Sophocles, then in low water Durham said it was a pose in "us undergraduates" to ignore him and advised Fetherstonhaugh to reread the Ajax with his eye on the characters rather than the author; he would learn more that way, both about Greek grammar and life.

According to Collins dictionary, "low water" means "low tide; a situation of difficulty". Methinks it doesn't really fit in this context. Does it have other meanings?

  • 3
    From this webpage looking at idiomatic usages in PG Wodehouse, In low water = dispirited, sad. That fits your context better, but this expression is rarely used today with any specific idiomatic meaning. But I bet most of the times you do come across it, it's in the Collins sense as cited above (which is actually more likely to be expressed today as in deep water or in hot water). And the "dispirited" sense is today more likely to be at a low ebb. Jul 31, 2017 at 13:44
  • @Shun Why anyone would downvote this question is beyond me.
    – Zan700
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:01

1 Answer 1


They argued a little about Sophocles, then in low water.
(Source, suggesting that the OP's transcription incorrectly ommited that final period.)

It means that in those days their school's curriculum allocated less time to the plays of Sophocles than was customary at other times in the school's history. The implied metaphor is that curriculums follow fashions, which rise and ebb like the tides at a beach.

  • See also: high water mark, low water mark.
    – Davo
    Jul 31, 2017 at 14:32
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    I don't think this reading is correct. You seem to be parsing the specific fragment in your answer as They argued a little about Sophocles, who at that time was metaphorically in low water (as regards the prominence of Sophocles within the school curriculum). I think the reference in low water = sad refers to Durham's state of mind when he complained about the undergraduates ignoring him. Jul 31, 2017 at 14:52
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    @agc I think your answer hits the mark. I would only add that a period should come after water, so that "then in low water" unquestioningly modifies Sophocles. I'd bet the period was in the original text. "Him" then would refer to Sophocles.
    – Zan700
    Jul 31, 2017 at 14:54
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    @FumbleFingers, the quote above may have a few transcription errors, (perhaps from an OCR of a bit mapped page image), and some punctuation may be been left behind, and if so a corrected quote might clarify any doubts.
    – agc
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:05
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    Haha! While you were switching to my position, I was searching Google Books for the cited text. Surprisingly (considering I've actually heard of the book), I only found one instance of the string "Sophocles, then in low water" - but the sentence ends with a period after water, which clearly supports your reading. I don't really care which version is faithful to the original.. If the period is present it has one meaning - and without, it has another. No ambiguity if we either do or don't have a period. Jul 31, 2017 at 15:55

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