'Water Under the Bridge': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 18, 2023

Wanna know what people mean when they say 'water under the bridge?' Then look no further. In this article, you'll learn the meaning of this famous idiom and how to use it in a sentence.

Here's the short version:

  • When someone says there's water under the bridge, what they mean is that much time has passed since the event was discussed, and therefore, there isn't much point dwelling on it.  

What Does 'Water Under the Bridge' Mean?

This is an idiom, meaning it can't be interpreted literally. When we say 'water under the bridge,' we aren't talking about actual water and actual bridges. Having said that, looking at the literal meaning, like with many idioms, can help us understand the intended metaphorical meaning.

The phrase may have been inspired by the idea of water flowing under a bridge and disappearing downstream, signifying the irretrievable nature of the past. It suggests that the past is like a river flowing away, and what has already passed is no longer important because it cannot be changed.

  • And that's precisely what this idiom means. It is used to describe something that has happened in the past and is no longer relevant or worth dwelling upon.
  • You can use it to refer to events that are forgotten, forgiven, or not considered important.

So imagine, for instance, that your ex walks into a restaurant where you're sitting with a friend. You had a bad breakup a few years ago, so your friend asks if you're okay.

You might answer:

Sure, that's all water under the bridge. He and I have made our peace with what happened. 

Where Does 'Water Under the Bridge' Come From?

The exact origins of this idiom are not well-documented, but it has been in use for several centuries. It is believed to have originated in the United States in the mid-19th century and was first recorded in writing in the early 20th century. The earliest use in print I could find was in Julia Kavanagh's Adele. A Tale. in 1958, in which she wrote the following sentence:

Ah! water has flowed under the bridge, as people say, since those days.  

But before this saying became popularized, there was a slightly different version, which is even older. It goes 'Water over the dam' and is said to have originated in the 1700s.

Even earlier than that, in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus coined the following phrase, which doesn't have the exact same meaning but conveys a similar sense:

You cannot step twice in the same river.

With this phrase, he encapsulates the ever-changing nature of reality and the impermanence of everything. In this way, it is similar to 'water under the bridge' because they share a similar theme related to change and impermanence.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the idiom's meaning and its possible origins, here are some examples of it being used in a sentence.

I know we had our differences in the past, but let's move forward and consider it all water under the bridge.

After our argument, we decided to forgive each other, and now it's all water under the bridge.

Her mistakes from last year are water under the bridge now; she's learned from them and now uses her skills to help people.

The organization faced financial difficulties in the past, but with the new management, they're treating it as water under the bridge.

I used to be upset about losing that job, but it's all water under the bridge, and I've found a better opportunity.

Their breakup was tough, but they didn't want to waste their time harboring grudges so they've both moved on, and it's all water under the bridge at this point.

The team had a rough start to the season, but their recent successes have made those early losses seem like water under the bridge.

They were never able to see eye to eye but eventually, they let go of the grudge they held against each other, and now it's all water under the bridge.

She realized that harboring resentment over her friend's actions was counterproductive, so she decided to consider it water under the bridge.

The disagreement between the neighbors was resolved when they apologized, and they agreed to let it be water under the bridge. 

Other Ways to Say 'Water Under the Bridge'

Of course, just like with most idioms, there's always more than just one way to say something.

Here are some other ways to express that something is part of the past and you've moved on:

  • Ancient history
  • Yesterday's news
  • Let bygones be bygones
  • In the past
  • Old news
  • Forgotten and forgiven
  • Put it behind us
  • Closed chapter
  • Moved on
  • That ship has sailed
  • All in the past
  • A closed book
  • Over and done with
  • Yesterday's water

Concluding Thoughts

Well, that pretty much concludes this article on the popular idiom. So basically, if you want to say you're not worried about something or don't hold any grudges because it's in the past, you can say it's water under the bridge.

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

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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