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I've always wondered what the origins of this expression are? I looked it up online and found a few discussions on the subject:

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 guesses and assumptions. Does anyone have any idea where it actually comes 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 7:43
  • @Quassnoi Should the обиженный be replaced by the сердитый? Since the accepted answer uses the latter word instead?
    – Artemix
    Aug 13, 2013 at 13:45
  • @Artemix: both are used, this is mentioned in the answer
    – Quassnoi
    Aug 13, 2013 at 13:55
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    @CocoPop It wasn't the English you have corrected, you have rephrased my whole question. What do you think give you the right to do this?
    – Eugene S
    Jul 21, 2022 at 6:30

2 Answers 2

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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). Common sayings constantly develop, change their meaining, become corrupted, etc.

Now for another set of speculations (just so you know, I'm reciting Русская Речь from memory — it's not my own speculation).

Возить воду is a common metaphor for hard, thankless labor, and на нём можно воду возить is said of a physically strong, but meek and servile person who won't protest to this type of toil. This doesn't 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 in 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 the 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 the wait will allow you to cool down.

However, the second portion was later lost, and the meaning of the proverb changed. It became: if there's an overabundance of something in your character/behavior, you'll be forced to deliver water.

This "overabundance" 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 badly, were forced to harness themselves into the water carts and feel on their skin what the poor animals feel.

Here's a photo of the monument to such a carrier I took 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 doesn't seem 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.)

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, 2012 at 8:25
  • So that's old Russian for the "Why so serious?"? That is unexpected :)
    – GSerg
    Jun 21, 2012 at 15:19
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I think I have the answer in the culture note from a Russian course, that discusses this very phrase:

"На сердитых воду возят."

They explain that not too long ago, сердитый meant diligent or hard-working, but later came to mean angry. It was the most diligent and hard-working horses that were burdened with the most water-carrying labor.

Another answer states that сердитых was in the accusative case, but if instead, сердитых is the prepositional case, the phrase can be translated roughly as "On (the) angry (ones), water is carried", meaning that angry people make life harder for themselves and are burdened with more work.

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