Test the waters

Test the waters is an idiom that came into use in the second half of the twentieth century. We will examine the meaning of the idiom test the waters, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To test the waters means to try something out, to make an exploratory attempt, to make an initial attempt at something in order to gauge others’ reactions. The idiom test the waters is often used in politics to mean someone is exploring whether he should run for office or in business to mean offering goods or services in a limited fashion to see if the public will buy them, before the politician or business commits to their plans. The phrase test the waters came into use in the 1960s and may allude to the fact that one sticks his toe in the water to test the temperature of a pool, lake, or ocean before diving in; it may allude to the fact that one tests the temperature of a bath before putting a baby in the water. Related phrases are tests the waters, tested the waters, testing the waters. Note that the term is sometimes rendered as test the water, but the plural, test the waters, is the standard form.

Examples

It gave you a chance to test the waters of new authors, but it also gave you novellas from favorite authors. (The Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette)

Some of the first museums to test the waters have been in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott allowed institutions to open at 25% capacity at the beginning of May. (Barron’s)

Going forward, testing the waters for new brands online before committing to brick-and-mortar stores will be a bigger focus, he said. (The Straits Times)