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I've been always wondering what are the origins of this expression? I searched through the net and found few discussions on this issue:

Link 1: http://lingvoforum.net/index.php?topic=4111.0
Link 2: http://otvety.google.ru/otvety/thread?tid=7d0f828b9d91a0e1

However it looks more like guessing and assumptions. Does anyone have any idea where does it really come from?

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  • There was an article in Русская Речь some four years ago about this very saying, but I can't find it right now. As with other common sayings not coined by someone in writing, the "one and only origin" is very hard to find, even if it exists.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 21 '12 at 7:39
  • @Quassnoi Thanks for your comment. Actually I'm not even sure what is the real meaning of that saying and I'm also not so sure that some people who use it know its meaning either...
    – Eugene S
    Jun 21 '12 at 7:43
  • I replaced the previous links with plain links for transparency.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 21 '12 at 15:40
  • @Quassnoi Should the обиженный be replaced by the сердитый? Since the accepted answer uses the latter word instead?
    – Artemix
    Aug 13 '13 at 13:45
  • @Artemix: both are used, this is mentioned in the answer
    – Quassnoi
    Aug 13 '13 at 13:55
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First of all, it's usually very hard to find a "real origin" for a common saying (unless it was coined by someone in writing). The common sayings constantly develop, change their meaining, get contaminated etc.

Now, another portion of speculations (just in case, I'm reciting Русская Речь from memory, it's not my own speculation).

Возить воду is a common metaphor of a hard and ungrateful labor, and на нём можно воду возить is told of a physically strong but meek and servile person who won't protest against such a labor. This does not correspond to any of meanings of сердитый: angry, grumpy, irate.

Dahl mentions this as на сердитых воду возят на упрямой лошади. This can be perceived two ways:

  • An angry person would be forced to drive a stubborn horse to deliver water
  • The water for an angry person would be delivered on a stubborn horse. The word сердитый is in accusative, not prepositive (compare to еду за водой, на тебя привезти?)

The second reading makes much more sense to me: if you are so angry, we'll use a stubborn horse to deliver your water, and waiting would cool you down.

However, later the second portion was lost, and the proverb changed its meaning. It became: if there is something too much in your character or behavior, you'll be forced to deliver water.

"Something too much" may be сердитый (too angry), обиженный (too resentful), добрый (too kind) etc., and all these variants are mentioned in the corpus. Only the last meaning makes sense and it seems to be the latest reinterpretation.

There is a legend in St. Petersburg that angry water carriers who treated their horses bad were forced to harness themselves into the water carts and feel on their skin what do the poor animals feel.

Here's the photo of the monument to such a carrier I made near the St. Petersburg Water Museum in 2010:

picture water museum

Update:

The actual entry in Dahl reads as

На сердитыхъ воду возятъ, на упрямой лошади.

This I believe invalidates the second reading and the second part seems not to be a part of the saying at all.

Dahl further provides another meaning for сердитый:

сердито взялся за работу, упорно, съ рвенiемъ (пск. твер. Опд.)

The Dahl's reading, I believe, is that an industriuos, hard-working horse would be used to carry water, which might be a warning against being too much of an eager beaver.

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  • This is a very impressive answer!
    – Eugene S
    Jun 21 '12 at 8:25
  • A very nice answer indeed! I would only suggest adding a link to "Русская речь" and may be Dahl.
    – texnic
    Jun 21 '12 at 8:34
  • @Texnic: I read it in print and can't find it right now.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 21 '12 at 8:35
  • I didn't mean this particular stuff, just a link to the book itself. Otherwise Русская речь is just "Russian speech" so it's not very clear. ruslang.ru/agens.php?id=rr or gramota.ru/biblio/magazines/rr would be fine, up to you.
    – texnic
    Jun 21 '12 at 8:51
  • 3
    @Quassnoi Do what? :)
    – Alenanno
    Jun 21 '12 at 15:55

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