Water Under the Bridge: Meaning, Usage & Origin

The phrase “water under the bridge” is often used to describe an event, a situation or a disagreement that has happened in the past and is no longer considered significant or worth fretting over.

It suggests that the matter is over and done with and emphasizes letting go of past grievances or problems and moving on.

This idiomatic expression paints a vivid mental picture. Just like water flowing under a bridge is gone and can’t be brought back, so are past issues when referred to in this manner. They have passed and should no longer affect your current state.

The calm river flows under an old stone bridge, symbolising the passage of time and the resolution of past conflicts to denote the meaning of the idiom "water under the bridge"
Water flowing under the bridge

The idiom “water under the bridge” is commonly used in both American and British English and underscores the importance of not dwelling on what’s already occurred. It is reflective of a forward-looking mindset. The phrase “water over the dam” is a less common variant of the idiom and tends to be used in American English.

In a nutshell:

  • “Water under the bridge” illustrates past events that are now deemed resolved or insignificant. It’s quite common in both British and American English
  • The phrase promotes forgiveness and the continuation of life without being held back by the past.
  • Originating in the early 1800s, the term is a metaphor for letting go of past disputes or negative experiences.

Water Under the Bridge: Meaning

When you describe an occurrence as water under the bridge, you refer to it as an event that no longer has any significant or lingering effect. It’s a metaphor illustrating how, similar to water flowing past under a bridge, time moves on, taking past grievances along with it.

Water under the bridge is a common idiom in English, encapsulating a sense of letting go. It suggests that the event, disagreement, or mistake has been moved beyond and is no longer a concern, much like water flowing under a bridge continues on its way and doesn’t return.

Employing this phrase, you acknowledge that the past cannot be changed. It suggests a perspective where you have moved beyond any former conflicts or dilemmas.

It encourages letting bygones be bygones and not allowing previous issues to affect the present.

It signifies forgiveness, acceptance, or overcoming past conflicts or problems, suggesting one has moved on from past troubles. It also acts as a verbal confirmation of one’s readiness to proceed without emotional baggage.

Additionally, it underscores the transient nature of life’s incidents, indicating a shift in opinions or sentiments and a readiness to dismiss what is no longer pertinent. It’s in the past!

a person in a moment of contemplation, standing by a river and watching the water flow under an old stone bridge. This scene symbolising the idiom "water under the bridge"
Water Under the Bridge!

Water Under the Bridge: Origin

The exact origin of this phrase is difficult to pinpoint, as is the case with many idioms, but it has been a part of the English language vernacular for quite some time.

The Google Ngram viewer shows that usage started in the early 1800s and picked up in the mid to late 90s.

Water under the bridge Usage (Source: Ngram Viewer 1800-2019)

Early mentions in French literature suggest the phrase “Laisser passer l’eau sous les ponts”, which translates to letting water flow under the bridge, shares a similar sentiment with its English counterpart. This illustrates the universal nature of its meaning across languages and cultures, signifying the irreversible flow of time and the importance of moving on.

“Water under the bridge” is a clear example of how natural phenomena are often used metaphorically to express human emotions and experiences.

Water Under the Bridge: Usage (With Examples)

This idiom is commonly used in writing to indicate forgiveness or the passage of time.

The metaphorical use captures the flowing nature of water — once it has passed under a bridge, it moves on, symbolizing the passage of time and the idea that certain things should be left in the past.

It promotes a positive outlook, focusing on the present and future rather than dwelling on past events. It is a testament to a mature understanding that what’s done cannot be undone. It’s often used in both personal and professional contexts.

For instance, an author might craft a character who regards a former rivalry with a schoolmate as water under the bridge, showing personal growth and the healing of old wounds.

Here’s how you can use it in sentences:

  • “Yes, we had our differences, but that’s all water under the bridge now.”
  • “I know we didn’t see eye to eye on that project, but let’s consider it water under the bridge and start afresh.”

This idiom also serves as a bridge to reconciliation and a nudge to drop lingering resentments.

In everyday conversation, you might hear:

  • “We used to argue about politics a lot, but after all these years, it’s just water under the bridge.”
  • “He borrowed money and never paid it back, but with everything else that’s happened, it’s water under the bridge.”

Water Under the Bridge: Synonyms

When you forgive past events and move on, you’re letting bygones be bygones. This phrase is a synonym for water under the bridge, conveying a similar sentiment of letting past conflicts or problems go because they’re no longer relevant or worth worrying about.

Water over the dam is another expression with a similar meaning. It suggests that the event is past and cannot be changed, just like water flowing over a dam. This idiom emphasises the importance of focusing on current events rather than dwelling on what has already occurred.

Other synonyms include:

  • Forgotten
  • Moot
  • Irrelevant
  • Ancient history

All these terms share the essence of “water under the bridge,” denoting something that is past and should not affect the present or future. They are handy tools in your vocabulary to express the action of moving past old issues.

Wrapping Up

I hope this post has helped you better understand the idiomatic expression “water under the bridge.”

Recognising this phrase can be beneficial in both personal and professional settings. It communicates a mature stance towards past issues, indicating that you’re looking ahead rather than being anchored by bygones.

It is a concise way to establish your eagerness to progress, giving you and your conversational partners a clear slate to work from.

Use it when you’ve moved on from past disagreements or mistakes. It emphasises resolution and the readiness to focus on present circumstances and common goals rather than dwelling on history.


Is “water under the bridge” a metaphor in a sentence?

Yes, “water under the bridge” is a metaphor when used in a sentence. It compares past events that are out of reach and moving beyond control, just like water flowing beneath a bridge, to situations or disagreements that are considered resolved and, thus, no longer a concern.

How is ‘water under the bridge’ commonly used in everyday language?

In everyday language, “water under the bridge” is typically employed to convey that past conflicts or problems have been overcome, suggesting that they should not affect current relationships or circumstances. It promotes the concept of letting go and moving forward.

How is the expression ‘water under the bridge’ interpreted in a spiritual context?

In a spiritual context, “water under the bridge” can be interpreted as encouraging forgiveness and release from past grievances. It suggests embracing peace and liberation by allowing bygones to be bygones, in line with many spiritual teachings that advocate for living in the present moment.

Is water under the bridge a good thing?

Viewing something as “water under the bridge” generally carries a positive connotation. It indicates personal growth and a release from past burdens. It also focuses on the present and future rather than dwelling on what cannot be changed.

Is “water under the bridge” restricted to British English only?

The phrase “water over the dam” is a less common variant of the idiom and tends to be used in American English. However, “water under the bridge” is well-understood and frequently used in American English as well, so it’s not exclusive to British English.

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Aman, at the helm of Weboword as its founder and Word Architect, believes deeply in the ability of words to connect, educate, and inspire. Each word is a key, and with Weboword, he aims to unlock the doors of imagination, understanding, and connection.

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