Testing the Waters – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Certain phrases and common idioms are a key part of our everyday language. Without them, English would be pretty boring! Take the idiom “testing the waters” as a good example. It’s a commonly used phrase that holds both literal and metaphorical meanings. But where did it come from, and what does it truly mean? Let’s have a look!

Testing the Waters Meaning Explained

Testing the Waters Idiom Origin Meaning

“Testing the waters” is a super common idiom you’ve surely heard and maybe even used. It means assessing a situation with caution or trying something out before committing to it. We often use it when we want to gauge others’ reactions to something or if we’re unsure how certain things will play out.

New foods are a great example. Myself, I have a number of health issues that limit what food I can eat. So, when introducing new food to my diet, I try it in small amounts, aka testing the waters to see how my body will react to it.

Test the Waters Origin

The origin of the idiomatic phrase “testing the waters” doesn’t have an exact date to trace back to, but the whole idea behind it has been used for centuries. It worked its way into the everyday language from situations like testing the bath water for a child before putting them in so you ensured they would be scaled.

Is It Testing the Water or Testing the Waters?

Testing the Waters and Testing the Water Ngram
Testing the waters and testing the water usage trend.

While you can use both “testing the water” and “testing the waters” in any conversation, “testing the waters” is the more popular version of the idiom. Because both expressions convey the same meaning, it wouldn’t make a huge difference. With that being said, as a writer and author, I would personally use “testing the waters” to refer to broader situations, like dating, and reserve “testing the water” for more specific things, like new food.

  • I’m testing the waters and getting back into dating after the divorce.
  • I’m testing the water with red peppers.

What Is Another Way to Say Testing the Waters?

Easy peasy! Basically, any word or phrase that expresses the idea of trying something in small amounts before committing will convey the same message.

  • Dipping one’s toes in
  • Gauging the situation
  • Feeling out
  • Sounding out
  • Trying out
  • Taking the temperature
  • Assessing the situation
  • Venturing
  • Skirting the edge

Testing the Waters Examples in a Sentence

Testing the Waters Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • Before investing heavily in this new publishing project, I decided to test the waters by working with a short story first.
  • Unsure of her friend’s opinion on the subject of baking, Jane tested the waters by casually bringing up the topic during their conversations.
  • My daughter is an artist and wanted to test the waters with a new style, so I bought her the cheaper version of the new tools to see how she liked it.
  • When our son expressed an interest in piano, we bought him a second-hand one first to test the waters of his dedication to learning the instrument.

Test the Waters With Your Grammar

I adore idioms and the color they can add to conversation and writing. I hope my quick guide on “testing the waters” has given you some insight into how you can use the phrase yourself. Play around with it and test the waters!