Doesn’t Hold Water (or Do Not Hold Water) – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idiomatic phrases are a figurative way to add emphasis to your speech and writing. They often provide an analogy to a material to help an audience better understand the author’s message.

The use of idioms takes some practice. And when my students begin to use them, it highlights a higher level of thinking and mastery of the English language. It is a mark of comprehensive skills and shows that students are focused on the rhetoric or persuasiveness of their work rather than just opinion.

When you tell somebody what they are saying doesn’t hold water, you are telling them it isn’t verifiable or able to withstand scrutiny. This idiom has been used since the 1600s to add dramatic flair and accusation in journalistic recordings. Let’s take a closer look at its origin and meaning so you can use it in your own materials.

What Is the Meaning of Doesn’t Hold Water?

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Doesn’t hold water describes an argument or narrative that is not logical, does not make sense, is not reasonable, or cannot hold under critical examination. For instance, if a child tells his teacher that his dog ate his homework, the teacher may believe that his excuse doesn’t hold water.

Some people say something will hold no water, won’t hold water, will not hold water, or do not hold water as an alternative phrase, but they mean the same thing.

For example:

  • I don’t believe a word they said about the party; that story doesn’t hold water.
  • The account shared in the trial concerning the break-in and theft didn’t hold water, and the victims ended up being charged as the perpetrators when the truth came out.
  • The story you plan on telling won’t hold water once your mom questions you, so it’s better you simply share the truth instead.
  • The journalist’s account will not hold water once the video of the events is released.
  • I told you the testimony holds no water. Justice will prevail.

What Is the Origin of Doesn’t Hold Water?

The expression doesn’t hold water has been in used as a modern expression of skepticism in the face of an argument or narrative since the 1600s. The image is one of a bucket or other vessel that leaks and does not fulfill its intended use, suggesting the information shared is not sound.

Although controversial due to multiple translations, the first possible known account of a similar term is found in the Biblical Old Testament, Jeremiah 2:13, when God states, “two evils my people have done: they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; They have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Despite the differences in translations, almost all accounts agree it is meant to create a metaphor comparing the people’s faith trickling away like water through a broken cistern. 

The first known use in modern publication was in The Yorkshire Spaw in 1626 when John French wrote, “Let them produce a more rational account . . . that will hold water,” as a form of criticism when shared information didn’t provide valid information.

Let’s Review

Doesn’t hold water and related phrases are idiomatic – meaning they offer additional explanation through figurative language and analogy. To say something doesn’t hold water means questioning its logic and reasoning and claiming it wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny.