tread water

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tread water (third-person singular simple present treads water, present participle treading water, simple past (US) treaded water or (UK) trod water, past participle treaded water or (UK) trodden water or (UK) trod water)

  1. To remain afloat in the water without use of any buoyancy aid, by using kicking motions and hand motions.
    • 1857, R. M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island, chapter 13
      We gained the interior of the submarine cave without difficulty, and on emerging from the waves, supported ourselves for some time by treading water, while we held the two bundles above our heads.
  2. To make no progress, expending effort just enough to maintain a stable position.
    • 2009, The Economist, The idea of progress: Onwards and upwards
      The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism.
    • 2010, The Economist, Aid and austerity
      In the first scenario, the fund gets $13 billion, the minimum investment needed for the organisation to tread water.

Usage notes[edit]

  • The strongly inflected UK forms were commonly used in US newspapers in the nineteenth century, but rarely thereafter.