Keeping My Head Above Water—The Essence of Surviving Challenges

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

Keeping my head above water means keeping out of trouble, working hard enough to avoid financial difficulties, staying solvent, or keeping up with an overwhelming workload.

Idioms such as keeping my head above water are phrases whose overall meanings differ from the literal definitions of the words within them. They are a vital part of the English language, adding flair and cultural richness to communication. Idioms provide a unique way to convey complex ideas or emotions concisely, often incorporating humor, tradition, or local flavor.

In this article, I dive into the idiom’s deeper meaning, proper usage, and origin. I also provide example sentences, tips for effective usage, and some related terms and phrases. I also include a quick quiz for you to put your newly acquired knowledge to the test! Let’s get started!

Keeping My Head Above Water—The Essence of Surviving Challenges 1

What Does the Idiom Keeping My Head Above Water Mean?

The idiom keeping my head above water means managing to survive in difficult circumstances, especially when facing challenges or financial difficulties. It often implies struggling to cope with various pressures or responsibilities while striving to stay afloat and avoid being overwhelmed.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the idiom as “to just be able to manage, especially when you have financial difficulties.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster tells us that the idiom means “to avoid financial failure while having money problems.” The idiom essentially means that you’re working harder to keep financial problems at bay or keep on top of a heavy workload.

Recently, thanks to various online happenings, my workload and income have drastically been reduced. That’s not only stressful but also leaves me struggling to keep my head above water financially. Fortunately, I recently qualified as a funeral celebrant, which gives me another potential income stream to pursue, so perhaps the future is not so dismal after all.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of keeping my head above water is to tread water or swim harder to prevent one’s head from becoming submerged by water, possibly leading to drowning. The figurative meaning of the phrase is to work harder to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed by work or financial commitments.

Variations of the Idiom

Here are some variants of the idiom keeping my head above water:

  • Have my head above water
  • Get my head above water
  • Hold my head above the waterline

How Is Keeping My Head Above Water Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom keeping my head above water finds resonance in conversations where individuals express the challenges of surviving in difficult circumstances, particularly when facing adversity or financial struggles.

Explore how this idiom is commonly used, gain tips for its effective application, and discover real-world examples illustrating the resilience required to navigate challenging situations.

What Are the Different Ways to Use Keeping My Head Above Water?

Here are some examples of how to use the expression correctly in different contexts:

  • At work: “With all the work that’s piling up recently, I’m just trying to keep my head above water until the project deadline expires.”
  • Financial challenges: “Since I lost my job, keeping my head above water and paying the bills is a constant challenge.”
  • In sports: “The team isn’t doing well at all this season. We’re struggling to keep our heads above water and avoid relegation to the bottom division.”
  • Health problems: “Ever since my husband’s unexpected medical problems happened, managing our finances has been challenging, but we’re absolutely determined to keep our heads above water.”

What Are Some Tips for Using Keeping My Head Above Water Effectively?

Here are a few handy tips for using the idiom correctly in your prose:

  • Context matters: As mentioned above, the idiom can have negative or positive connotations, so be sure to use it in the right context. It’s generally associated with financial or work challenges.
  • Be specific: When using the phrase, provide details or context to make your usage of the idiom more vivid. For example, say, “With the tight deadlines and increasing workload, I’m barely keeping my head above water,” rather than simply saying, “I’m just keeping my head above water at work.”
  • Tone and delivery: Since this idiom can be used positively or negatively, pay attention to your tone of voice and use it to convey how you feel.
  • Don’t overuse the idiom: As with all idioms, use this one sparingly to maintain its impact.
  • Use variations: To add variety and depth to your language, combine the idiom with other metaphors and expressions that have the same meaning.
  •  Use in varied situations: Use this idiom in different situations, from personal challenges to work-related stress. That shows versatility in your language skills.
  •  Understand your audience: Be mindful of your audience and the appropriateness of the idiom’s usage. In more formal settings, for clarity, it might be best to opt for a less colloquial expression.

Where Can You Find Examples of Keeping My Head Above Water?

You’ll hear the idiom used in casual situations rather than in academia or business settings. You’ll also find the idiom used in different forms of media, including movies, online, newspapers and magazines, and public speeches made by politicians.

It’s also being quoted by various online publications, like in these few examples:

“As long as you keep your head above water, you will be a valuable member of the team.” (The Mooresville Tribune)

But advancing new ideas when you are trying to keep your head above water with the needs of day-to-day business operations is no easy task. (Forbes Magazine)

“Everybody’s just very uplifting, very positive, so it’s very easy to keep your head above water when you’re going through something like that,” he said. (The Los Angeles Times)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Keeping My Head Above Water?

keeping my head above water Ngram
Keeping my head above water usage trend.

Keeping my head above water originated in the 1700s, although its first use and origins are unknown.

Over time, keeping my head above water became used to mean avoiding trouble, working hard to avoid difficulties, and keeping up with work to avoid becoming consumed by stress.

The phrase’s figurative meaning is derived from a literal meaning, which alludes to someone swimming and managing not to sink or drown. Today, this idiom is in common use, especially during times of recession and financial hardship.

What Are Some Related Terms to Keeping My Head Above Water?

Here are some related terms to the idiom keeping my head above water, which can help clarify the phrase’s figurative meaning.

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  • Sinking
  • Drowning
  • Crumbling under the pressure
  • Yielding to adversity
  • Being swept away
  • Falling behind
  • Losing the battle

Keeping My Head Above Water: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about Keeping My Head Above Water?

We have learned that the idiom keeping my head above water means keeping clear of trouble or working hard to prevent getting into financial difficulties. The idiom probably first came into use sometime in the 1700s, although its origins are unknown.

Idioms like this are used to give your prose more flair and engagement and can demonstrate your advanced command of the English language. When using idioms, try to use variations and synonyms of those phrases to keep things interesting and avoid too much repetition to keep your parlance fresh.

Give your speech more verve and variety by checking out our other idiom guides!