'Sink or Swim': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on October 19, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'sink or swim', and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • 'Sink or swim' means to either succeed by your own efforts or fail by your own efforts.

What Does 'Sink or Swim' Mean?

'Sink or swim' is an idiom that means 'to succeed or fail by your own efforts.' If someone is in a 'sink or swim' situation, it means that they must use their own means to save themselves or otherwise fail completely.

The picture that is painted by this idiom is one of a person being thrown into the water without any type of floatation device. In this situation, they only have two options: swim and survive or sink and drown.

Where Does 'Sink or Swim' Come From?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase 'sink or swim' is attested from the mid-1400s. Early use of the phrase was often related to situations where an individual was suspected of being a witch.

Europe underwent something of a 'witch craze' during the early modern period. Essentially, the belief in witchcraft became increasingly popular, which corresponded with increasing anxiety that other people in one's community might be witches.

The History of the Swimming Test

Considering that the crime of witchcraft isn't as easy to prove as other, less metaphysical crimes, different tests were created to allow for a divine point of view on the topic. The swimming test, as it is often called, was first an old Germanic rite that was reinforced later on as a part of baptisms. The idea was that the water would reject people who had turned to the Devil.

The swimming test had actually been used hundreds of years earlier for crimes like murder and adultery. However, the clergy stopped supporting the use of this test by the thirteenth century, as there was quite a bit of controversy due to the fact that it lacked a strong foundation in Church law or in the Bible.

By the 16th century, however, the swimming test reemerged for reasons historians don't quite understand. It's worth noting that learned authorities were never supportive of the swimming test, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a frequent method for attempting to identify witches.

In a swimming test, the accused would usually have their wrists and ankles tied before they were thrown into the water. Ropes would be attached to them. If they sunk once thrown in the water, they would be presumed innocent and pulled back out of the water. If they floated, though, it meant that they were consorting with the Devil through a revelation of God's judgment.

Examples of 'Sink or Swim' In Sentences

How would this idiom be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "I love traveling in places where there aren't other tourists. It feels like I'm out there on my own, and I can either sink or swim."
  • "I'm done helping my co-worker do all of his work. It's time for him to handle his responsibilities on his own and either sink or swim."
  • "There's a thin line between giving someone responsibility and throwing them into the deep end. I know you want to see if Tim sinks or swims, but I'm not sure he's ready to have no safety net."
  • "Everyone says this is a sink or swim situation, but I think it's a lot more nuanced than that."
  • "She seems to prefer situations where she can either prove herself or fail entirely-- she thrives off of sink or swim situations."

Quotes Using This Idiom

Here are some examples of 'sink or swim' and related concepts being used in popular quotes by both historical and contemporary figures:

"Poverty is uncomfortable; but nine times out of ten the best thing that can happen to a young man is to be tossed overboard and compelled to sink or swim."

- James A. Garfield

"To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float."

- Alan Watts

"'You are no saint,' says the devil. Well, if I am not, I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Sink or swim, I go to Him; other hope, I have none."

- Charles Spurgeon

"When you have to cope with a lot of problems, you're either going to sink or you're going to swim."

- Tom Cruise

Other Ways to Say 'Sink or Swim'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'sink or swim'?

Here are some options:

  • Do or die
  • Make or break
  • Thrown in at the deep end
  • No safety net

Final Thoughts About 'Sink or Swim'

'Sink or swim' is an idiom that refers to a situation where people can either survive and succeed through their own efforts or fail completely. The image brought to mind is of a person thrown into the water with only two options: fighting to survive by swimming or drowning.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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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