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Don't Find Yourself 'In Hot Water'

People play mahjong as they sit in water at a water park on a hot day in Chongqing, China August 2, 2017.
People play mahjong as they sit in water at a water park on a hot day in Chongqing, China August 2, 2017.
Don't Find Yourself 'In Hot Water'
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Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this program we talk about common expressions in the English language and we explain how to use them. And today we talk about something we’ve all experienced -- getting into trouble.

But why just say you are in trouble when you can use a more descriptive “water” expression!?

When you are in hot water you are in deep trouble. I mean, you have really made a mess of things.

The expression to be in hot water was used more than 500 years ago to mean being in trouble. One story says that the meaning comes from the custom of throwing boiling water down on enemies attacking a castle.

Of course, that is no longer the custom. But we still use the expression “in hot water.”

Okay. So, when we are in hot water, we are in trouble. And that trouble can be serious or not so serious.

A person who breaks the law can be in hot water with the police. But a small girl can also be in hot water with her parents for eating her birthday cake before her party starts.

Now, let’s say you look online to find words that mean about the same thing as “to be in hot water.” You might come across words like bind or jam or even a much more formal choice -- predicament.

However, be careful when using them as synonyms for being “in hot water.” When we are in hot water it is because of something we did wrong.

The bind, jam, predicament in which you find yourself may be your fault. But it may not be your fault. The difficulties might have been caused by things beyond your control.

For example, I could say that I’m in a bind at work. My boss wants me to work on Saturday but I’ve already made plans. I’m in a difficult situation, but I didn’t do anything wrong.

Or maybe your friend found himself in a jam while traveling. He was stranded in a foreign country after someone stole his wallet and passport.

Being in hot water is almost the same as being in deep water. When you are in deep water, you are in a difficult situation. You are facing a problem that you do not have the ability to solve. The problem is too deep for you. You can be in deep water, for example, if you invest in stocks without knowing anything about the stock market.

You may also hear people say troubled waters. However, we use that expression more in songs and poetry than we do in everyday speaking.

And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down …

Now, let’s hear how these friends use some of these expressions.

Hey did you hear about Sally?

No. What?

She called in sick yesterday but then the boss saw her at a concert dancing with friends.

Oh, that’s not good.

No, it’s not. She was already in hot water with her boss because of a big report she messed up.

I wonder what’s going to happen to her.

Well, she was in a similar predicament last month and was somehow able to talk her way out of it. But this time … I don’t know.

You know, now that you mention it … Sally is the type of person who is always getting herself out of some kind of jam. Sometimes it’s her fault. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s still a jam.

If she loses her job she might find herself in really deep water.


Well, she told me that she just bought a new apartment and her money is very tight right now.

Money troubles are the worst! That’s why I always try to have a little extra in the bank. Hopefully that means I won’t find myself in a bind over money.

Good thinking.

When your troubles are boiling over consult this recipe …

We will end our show today with a little advice: If you find yourself in hot, deep or even troubled waters, don’t forget you can always ask for help.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

When you’re up to your neck in hot water
be like a kettle and sing ...

This Words and Their Stories was written by Marilyn Christiano and Anna Matteo. Ashley Thompson was the editor. The song you heard earlier in the program is Simon and Garfunkel singing “Bridge Over Trouble Water” and at the end Vera Lynn sings “Be Like a Kettle and Sing.”


Words in This Story

bind n. a difficult situation

jamn. a difficult situation or state of affairs

formal adj. suitable for a proper occasion

predicament n. a difficult or unpleasant situation

synonym of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses

fault n. responsibility for a problem, mistake, bad situation, etc.

stranded v. to leave in a strange or an unfavorable place especially without funds or means to depart

troubled waters idiomatic expression a difficult or confusing situation

concertn. a public performance (as of music or dancing)

tightadj. relatively difficult to obtain money is tight just now