Keep one’s head above water

Keep one’s head above water is an idiom that is several hundred years old. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kick the bucket, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom keep one’s head above water, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To keep one’s head above water means to stay out of trouble, to work hard enough to avoid difficulties, to keep up with an overwhelming work load, to stay solvent–which means to be able to pay one’s bills, to avoid becoming consumed by stress. The phrase to keep one’s head above water has a figurative meaning that is derived from a literal meaning, which alludes to someone who is swimming and is managing to not sink or drown. The first use of the phrase is unknown, but the expression has been in use at least since the 1700s. Related phrases are keeps one’s’ head above water, kept one’s head above water, keeping one’s head above water.


“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)

Here, she offers some tips for tempering one’s panic in even the most extreme situations and how to keep your head above water when all goes awry. (Oprah 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)

Leave a Comment