‘Murky Water’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on November 25, 2022

What does it mean when someone uses the phrase ‘murky water’? In this article, we’ll take a look at the definition, potential origins, and examples.

In a nutshell, ‘murky water’ is an idiom that refers to a situation that is dangerous or difficult because of the unclear, unfamiliar, or unknown nature of the circumstance.

What Does ‘Murky Water’ Mean?

The idiom ‘murky water’ refers to a circumstance or situation that is unfamiliar, unclear, or foreign and that might be difficult or dangerous because it is unknown. You will also hear the phrase ‘murky waters’ (with ‘water’ pluralized) used interchangeably.

The Definition of ‘Murky’

The word murky has several related meanings, which are:

  • (Of liquid) Not clear; dirty and dark
  • Gloomy and dark, especially due to thick mist
  • Not fully understood or explained, especially with hidden immorality or dishonesty

Understanding the Idiom ‘Murky Water’

With a clearer understanding of the word ‘murky,’ we can get a better sense of what the idiom ‘murky water’ is conveying.

To help make sense of the meaning of this phrase, you can imagine if you were on a boat at sea and the water was dark, gloomy, dirty, and unclear. This means that you aren’t able to see if there are any obstacles you should be concerned about or potential problems coming up ahead.

You can also picture what it would be like to go for a swim in a pond where the water is muddy and dirty. If the water was up to your knees, when you looked down toward your feet you wouldn’t be able to see if there were sharp rocks, fish, or snakes in the places where you are trying to step.

Of course, you can also imagine the opposite situation. If you are wading through crystal clear water, you can easily see whether it is safe for you to continue walking forward.

From this imagery, you can get a good sense of what it means to be in ‘murky water’ or heading toward ‘murky water.’ It means that things are unclear and uncertain in a way that makes the situation dangerous or difficult.

Where Does This Idiom Come From?

Sometimes, it can help us better understand idioms when we know where they come from. Let’s break down the origin of each word in this phrase before looking at when and where ‘murky waters’ might have originated.

Origin of ‘Murky’

The adjective ‘murky’ meaning ‘obscure, dark, gloomy’ was rare before the 17th century but the noun ‘murk’ dates back to the mid-fourteenth century.

Origin of ‘Water’

As you might imagine, humans have been describing water with language for a very long time. The word ‘water’ comes from the Old English word wæter, which itself comes from the Proto-Germanic watr-. Related words are found in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, German, and Dutch.

Origin of ‘Murky Water’

Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely clear where the idiom ‘murky water’ comes from and when it was first used. The similar phrase ‘muddy the waters,’ which means to make something more chaotic, confusing, or difficult to understand, has been in use since the 1600s.

From the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the term was in use as early as 1800 and was used more frequently than usual in publications during the late 1830s and early 1840s. The use of the phrase was fairly steady until it becomes increasingly popular at the turn of the 20th century.

Though there isn’t clear scholarly evidence about the origin of this phrase, you can imagine how it could have come about naturally. Whether in relation to sailing a ship across the sea on a treacherous journey or needing to cross a lake on foot, it makes a lot of sense that humans would connect muddy or ‘murky water’ with a feeling of the unknown that is potentially dangerous.

Using ‘Murky Water’ in a Sentence

Are you wondering how exactly you could use the idiom ‘murky water’ in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples.

  • It was nice meeting my ex-girlfriend for coffee, but I felt like we were entering murky water when she started talking about her new boyfriend.
  • Jonathan had said he could fix my computer, but after he spent a few hours working on it he said he was getting in murky waters and I should give it to an expert instead.
  • I love my job but our boss recently said we are heading for murky waters in the coming quarter– I hope they aren’t laying people off.
  • Despite his attempts to plan ahead, he found himself in murky water on the third night of his road trip.
  • We might be in murky water right now, but with some hard work and thorough investigation, we should have a much clearer understanding of the situation.
  • I know it seems that we are headed for murky waters with this merger, but please bear with me and I promise it will be well worth it.

Similar and Related Phrases

There are a number of phrases that are similar and related to ‘murky water,’ including:

  • Muddy the waters
  • Uncharted water
  • Uncharted territory
  • Test the waters

Learning English idioms can be a great way to expand your vocabulary. Not only does it help you communicate more complex ideas in simple and interesting ways, but it also adds more depth and diversity to your writing and speaking.

If you're looking for more interesting phrases to learn, check out our recent posts on the idioms 'stay tuned,' 'spill the tea,' and 'keep up the good work!'

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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