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There must be something in the water
May 5, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Does the phrase "there must be something in the water" predate The Stepford Wives?

It's a commonly used phrase, but where did it come from? In the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, the main character, Joanna, notices that all of the women in Stepford are behaving similarly and actually goes to have the water tested. Is this where the phrase originated?
posted by donajo to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've wondered about this for about 10 years, since I first saw the movie. Google has gotten me nowhere.
posted by donajo at 6:10 PM on May 5, 2010


Google Books has plenty of uses of the phrase predating 1970.
posted by roger ackroyd at 6:44 PM on May 5, 2010


Most of those uses don't really relate to the phrase in the sense of "some strange series of events must have a common source" - but there's at least one source in that sense that dates back to 1968, so it certainly predates The Stepford Wives, both book and film.
posted by Paragon at 6:55 PM on May 5, 2010


Hmm. It's not clear to me if that is the same usage, considering the source is a congressional hearing on air and water pollution.
posted by donajo at 7:08 PM on May 5, 2010


I assumed that it was intended as a joke because of the context of the hearing, rather than literally relating to water pollution. I've pulled out more of the conversation around it:

"It was the first feasible automobile of the 1890s. It was developed in the same area. Around Philadelphia we get good ideas, and then wait for Detroit to provide the money. Thank you."
"I thank you very much Senator Scott. I think clearly you have demonstrated with these massive accomplishments in the automotive field and your contribution in the political field that there must be something in the water. [laughter]"
posted by Paragon at 7:24 PM on May 5, 2010


You're probably right, but I still see some ambiguity there. I'm not 100% convinced.
posted by donajo at 7:45 PM on May 5, 2010


Midshipmen's Trip to Jerusalem, 1872

The Holy Land, 1874

Hans Christian Anderson, 1876

Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 1889

In Food and its Adulterations (1855) the writer says that cholera was attributed to "something in the water." This indicates it was a common colloquial phrase, ripe for repurposing as a way to account for some effect with no visible cause.

After spending some time searching in Google Books, it becomes striking how often this phrase is used. In most cases it's used literally: "something in the water" is causing disease, health, flavor, crop death, etc. I think what that speaks to is a time of early scientific inquiry, when people had enough dedication to deductive reasoning to realize that a water source could carry contaminants or nutrients in it, but not enough to have those things identified with certainty. The germ theory of disease wasn't really well established - people thought water might contain "microbes" causing disease, but those were vaguely defined as "somethings" in the water - water being one of the central transmission vectors for any contaminant, a common denominator that could explain common behavior.

In the discourse surrounding the building of an Industrial age infrastructure and public health ideas, the phrase probably occurred often enough that it migrated to apply to social phenomena, easy to imagine that a similar "something in the water" could explain odd behavior or commonly exhibited personality factors.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oops, the first two links are identical! Retitling. But anyway - search on "something in the water" in Advanced Book Search. It's quite interesting.
posted by Miko at 7:52 PM on May 5, 2010


In the discourse surrounding the building of an Industrial age infrastructure and public health ideas, the phrase probably occurred often enough that it migrated to apply to social phenomena, easy to imagine that a similar "something in the water" could explain odd behavior or commonly exhibited personality factors.

To be clear, I'm looking for examples of this, pre-1972. Paragon's book is pretty close, but not conclusive, imho.

I'll stop moderating now.
posted by donajo at 8:06 PM on May 5, 2010


I think the usage is identical. "It has been asserted that there must be something in the water which renders the people sturdy, hard, and fearless." In this construction, as in your example, personal characteristics are attributed to an unknown cause thatlocated in "the water" - that is, in the atmosphere of a particular place. The phrase has both literal and metaphorical meanings, and this usage makes it clear to me that the metaphorical meaning is not new.

And since in your example, they actually have the water tested, the literal meanings shadow the one you are looking for fairly closely even without needing to cover metaphorical ones.

There are so many examples of "something in the water" in Google Books that I think you could trace for yourself the evolutions of the phrase with some searching and reading.
posted by Miko at 9:10 PM on May 5, 2010


It occurred to me that the phrase might have had its origin in the government's adding fluoride to drinking water in order to turn everyone Communist... and it turns out that the discovery of the link between fluoride and dental health was a result of "something in the water:"

In 1902, Dr. Frederick C. McKay, young dentist from Colorado Springs, noticed that many of his patients had discolored teeth, a kind of weird brown freckling, or mottling, that marred the enamel... "Something in the water," was the folk wisdom about those mottled teeth... In 1923 McKay convinced the townspeople of Oakley, Idaho, to put the "something in the water" theory to the test." Yadda yadda yadda, The difference did indeed seem to be "something in the water."

(From The people's health: a memoir of public health and its evolution at Harvard, 1997, by Robin Marantz Henig.)
posted by Devoidoid at 9:11 PM on May 5, 2010


This citation (1952) matches your usage but maddeningly is not available in search. "There must be something in the water up that way. You're starting to talk the way the Rae boys talked."

1949: "There's something in the water here that makes resistance weaker."
posted by Miko at 9:30 PM on May 5, 2010


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