The Meaning of Water Under The Bridge: What It Is and How To Use It

This article will give you all of the information you need on the phrase water under the bridge, including its definition, usage, origin, and more!

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What is the definition of water under the bridge?

According to Collins English Dictionary, the phrase water under the bridge refers to past events or incidents. This phrase means that said event has happened and can no longer be changed, so it is pointless to worry or think about. This phrase can also be expressed as water over the dam, according to Dictionary, which holds identical meaning to “water under the bridge.” Water over the dam is the American variant of the phrase. These metaphorical phrases refer to water that has already flowed under a bridge or under a dam and cannot be brought back, no matter how hard one tries.

The phrase is also used in a very specific anatomical context in the English language. According to Teach Me Anatomy, the ureters run underneath the uterine artery in female anatomy. Surgeons use the phrase “water under the bridge” to remember this fact, because during a hysterectomy in which the uterus and uterine artery are removed, one must be careful not to damage the ureter.

Musical artist Adele released a song entitled “Water Under the Bridge” on her 2016 album 25, according to Fandom. Adele and Greg Kurstin wrote the song, and the artist asserts that it is one of the fastest songs she has ever written. It details her relationship with Simon Konecki, and it is about holding strong to resist obstacles in romantic relationships. Adele sings, “our love ain’t water under the bridge” in the chorus, stating that their love is not over and done with, but something that they must still fight for.

What is the etymology of the phrase water under the bridge?

The origin of water under the bridge remains unknown. According to Phrases, the term was first mentioned in the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise. 

This book has two mentions in French of the phrase water under the bridge. The first is “laisser passer l’eau sons les ponts,” which means letting water flow under a bridge, thereby letting it go. The second is “il passera bien de l’eau sous les ponts,” which translates to “there will be a lot of water under the bridge,” meaning a lot of time will pass.

Dictionary says the phrase originated in 1797, but that its modern English usage began in the late 1800s. The Idioms states that it originated in the late 1900s.

How can water under the bridge be used in a sentence?

The phrase water under the bridge can be used in a variety of circumstances. It is considered a polite phrase, so one does not have to worry about it being too casual for a certain situation. In this first example, two friends are meeting up after a long time of not seeing each other.

Friend 1: I’m so glad I get to see you again. I have to say, I’m really sorry about how things ended between us. I was an immature teenager and I didn’t handle things well.

Friend 2: Don’t even worry about it. I was too. It’s all water under the bridge now.

Friend 1: Can we be friends again?

Friend 2: Without a doubt.

Here, the second friend uses the phrase water under the bridge to mean that their childish argument is in the past and no longer matters to them, and that they wish to start anew. In this second example, one partner cheated on the other and is begging for forgiveness.

Partner 1: I’m so sorry, I’ll do anything for you to take me back.

Partner 2: There’s nothing you can do.

Partner 1: I regret everything. If I could go back and fix it, I would.

Partner 2: It’s a little late for that now. It’s all water under the bridge. You can’t go back in time.

Partner 1: I know, and I’m sorry.

Here, the second partner uses water under the bridge to mean that the actions the first partner committed cannot be changed or altered. In the third example, two high school sports rivals from different schools end up going to the same college. Things are a bit awkward between them.

Rival 1: I know things are awkward between us, but we shouldn’t let this rivalry get in the way of us being productive, supportive teammates. Can we call it water under the bridge and move on?

Rival 2: Of course! That was high school, this is college. I would have done anything to beat your team back then, but now let’s work together to bring home a win.

Rival 1: Great!

Here, the first rival uses water under the bridge as a noun to describe something that is in the past that they should not dwell on.

What are similar phrases and synonyms for the phrase water under the bridge?

Thesaurus lists many synonyms for the phrase water under the bridge. Some of these are also idioms. These phrases can be used similarly to or in place of the phrase water under the bridge.

  • Bygones, or let bygones be bygones
  • Days gone by
  • Times past
  • Things forgotten about
  • Old news
  • Water over the dam
  • Ancient history
  • Things of the past
  • Mud in the fire
  • Spilled/spilt milk
  • Relic of the past
  • Yesteryear

Overall, water under the bridge is an expression that means something has already happened, or much time has passed, and the event or incident needn’t be worried or thought about anymore. It can be used in a variety of circumstances to discuss past events.