Muddy the waters

Muddy the waters is an idiom that has been in use since the 1600s. 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 or metaphors, 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, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, 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. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. 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 muddy the waters, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

Muddy the waters means to make something more confusing or more chaotic, to make something harder to understand. The image is of a muddy bottom being stirred up in a pond or lake composed of clear water, making it hard to see through the water. The expression muddy the waters came into use in the 1600s, though the expression muddled the waters was also popular at the time. Related phrases are muddies the waters, muddied the waters, muddying the waters. Note that the plural, waters, is used in the expression.


We use the expression “to muddy the waters” when someone is stirring up trouble, causing confusion. (The National Catholic Reporter)

However, incomplete or incorrect data can also muddy the waters, obscuring important nuances within communities, ignoring important factors such as socioeconomic realities, and creating false senses of panic or safety, not to mention other harms such as needlessly exposing private information. (The Harvard Business Review)

Not to muddy the waters, but within each of these categories are vegetables whose seeds you plant directly in the garden, and those that require so long a growing season that you need to purchase transplants (seedlings) for planting. (The Minot Daily News)

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