Test the waters

Test the waters is an idiom that came into use in the second half of the twentieth century. 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 like an often-used metaphor 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 and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, 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, because 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; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. 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.


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)

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