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The history of the meaning behind the term ‘still waters run deep’

Shenandoah River watershed
(© jeremy –

We have many sayings in life that are not always meant to be taken literally.

For example, we say “bite the bullet” when we want to get something done quickly. However, we don’t want them to bite the bullet from a gun.

Or, there is the “break the ice” saying that is often used to resolve conflict or be the first to start a new relationship and share something personal.

And then, of course, there is “butter someone up,” which is often used when referencing the attempt of saying nice things to impress someone else. It is not meant as a literal action of putting butter on someone else.

The list can go on and on when it comes to peculiar sayings common in the English language. But one that we want to mainly focus on and the highlight is the phrase “still waters run deep.”

If you have ever wondered about the still waters run deep meaning. You have come to the right place as we are going to explain what it means and when to use it, and the origins of how this saying became an everyday phrase in our everyday language today.

What does it mean?

The phrase “still waters run deep” is a saying that is used to describe a person who is introverted and shy to others but full of passion and intrigue within.

The phrase pays homage to the fact that you should never judge a book by its cover. And just because a person isn’t showing you their emotions externally does not mean they are not feeling it from within.

In fact, this phrase is a metaphor. Think of an actual calm river. When you are standing on dry land looking at it, the river itself seems calm, relaxed, and maybe even a bit timid. But once you get in the river, you will discover that there is a raging rapid and current that can whisk you away beneath the surface. The phrase reminds that just because you can’t see something does not mean it is not there.

How is it used?

Some examples of this phrase being properly used include:

  • Lacy is known to be shy, but she is one of the most outrageous people in the class: as the saying goes, still waters run deep.
  • My grandmother is the perfect example of still waters running deep. She is cool, calm, and collected to the average person. But give her a glass of wine, and the vibrant and entertaining stories from her life just start flowing out of her.

Where did it come from?

So this phrase has long been around since before any of us were born. Linguists and historians date the term “still waters run deep” back to the time of Alexander the Great back in what is now known as the regions of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But they would have used the Latin version of the phrase, “altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi”.

And in terms of being used in English, it is most likely first started being used around the 1400s. Shakespeare himself has alluded to this phrase in one of his great works known as Henry VI.

In the play, Shakespeare says “smooth runs the water where the brook is deep…..”

But the funny part is that Shakespeare is not referring to an interesting person, but more to a person who is secretly very dangerous.

Where else was it used?

But Shakespeare was not the only one to use the phrase during that period. It can also be found in Aesop’s fables and French proverbs. So while each author uses the phrase a bit differently, the core meaning stays true to what it is today—in that you never truly know a person until you look within.

However, it is essential to note that the general connotation of the phrase “still waters run deep” has dramatically evolved throughout the years. It has gone from referencing people of danger or charisma to people who are now humble, complex, intellectual, and engaging.

The significant part about this phrase is that it will continue to evolve over the years. And in our lifetime, we may see people start to use it differently.

That is the best part about the English language and our phrases. They are constantly evolving and growing as we as a society grow.

Story by Alex Hamilton

augusta free press
augusta free press