Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Episode 111: Muddy the Waters Show Notes


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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 111: Muddy the Waters  

Record Date: 5/25/2021

Air Date: 5/26/2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Today, we might get a little mixed up or confused… things will not be clear, because we’re going to Muddy the Waters. 

I heard someone use this phrase in conversation last week. During a conversation about popular music, two individuals began discussing what makes a song popular. There were a lot of factors brought up and several theories concerning the social push, advertising, grassroots popularity, and even the mechanics and metrics of each song. They determined there were too many factors being introduced which therefore muddied the water and did not allow any factor to be accurately or fully discussed. 


Before we do that, let me muddy the waters with a quick note. We’ve had a couple of requests for a mailing address, so I wanted to share that we do, actually, have a PO Box where you can send things here to the Bunny Trails studio.

Bunny Trails

PO Box 1359

Derby, KS 67037

And despite my professional and amazing segue to get into this read, I don’t have a good one back out of it. Though I suppose that means I’ve muddied the waters of the show then, huh? 


Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to muddy the water(s) means: to render an issue or situation confusing or hard to understand by introducing complications or distractions.

1653 B. Nicholson Blast from Lord

Their fair glosses and false interpretations of Iesus Christ... Thus they muddy the clear waters, and drink up the sweet waters, and trouble the rest with their feet.

1665 by John Swan

1792 Mary Wollstonecraft (author and women’s rights advocate) · A vindication of the rights of woman

The vices and follies which..proceed from a feculent stream of wealth that has muddied the pure rills of natural affection.

The next few instances of the phrase were found on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website. 

From the Alexandria gazette & advertiser, March 20, 1823 out of Alexandria, D.C., we find the phrase, used in a literal sense, but as a situational simile. This is discussing a particular set of laws or legal determinations that had been established in Kentucky - referred to as K in part of the article - that indebted the owner of pieces of land to the renters of land in various circumstances. Renters were allowed to make changes or improvements, whether the owner wanted them or not. From the article, quote: 

From this and other articles which reference the story, I realized the tale of the lamb and the wolf is a common fable sharing some “wisdom of the ages”, but I wasn’t familiar with it. It turns out this comes from one of the most well-known series of such tales … Aesop’s Fables. Specifically, this comes from The Wolf & The Lamb. Essentially, the lamb is drinking water from a stream and the wolf notices it as it drinks upstream. Because the lamb looks so meek, the wolf feels it must create some reason to eat the lamb, some excuse. The wolf accuses the lamb of muddying the water, despite being downstream. I love the Library of Congress’ interactive Aesop Fables series titled, The Aesop for Children. Each story has a moving illustration and is well-written, but simplified to allow for younger learners to more easily understand them and learn the intended lesson. 

We’ll be sure to share this link. 

Obviously, this is a literal use of the phrase muddy the water. However, the fable was used regularly to describe times when one was blamed for something when they could not have actually had any impact on the situation. 

From the April 04, 1850 edition of The national era out of Washington, D.C. is a letter written “To The Honorable Daniel Webster”. 

1855 Anthony Trollope · The warden

It was so hard that the pleasant waters of his little stream should be disturbed and muddied by rough hands.

This is a little bit of a turn of the phrase, but still has the same figurative usage. 

1857 The Debates of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Iowa

This question of slavery..will be found, as we glide down the stream of time, raising its horrid front, and ever muddying the waters of politics until it is finally disposed of. Slavery is wrong.

I’m kind of liking this… 

In the work Thus Spake Zarathustra: a book for all and none by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, published in 1896, there is a quote that has been translated a couple of different ways. Here is one translation 

And here is another version: 

Nor are they cleanly enough for me : they all muddy their waters , that they might appear deep . '

1905 Edmund Chandler Unveiling of Lhasa 

And here at Ari, as I look across the valley of the Russett Chu to Pedong, and hear the vesper bell, I cannot help thinking of that strange conflict of minds—the devotee who, seeing further than most men, has cared nothing for the things of this incarnation, and Phuntshog, the strange hybrid product of restless Western energies, stirring and muddying the shallows of the Eastern mind. Or are they depths?

1930 The American historical review

If he has little to say here that is new, he has at least refrained from the sort of speculation which long muddied these waters.

Before we get to some more modern examples, we want to give a shout out to the folks who make this show possible!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Shauna and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

And we turn to you, our listening community, to help cover those costs. To do that, we use Patreon, a service that allows you to support the creators and artists you love. Our patrons get exclusive behind the scenes content, early access to episodes, and access to our videos so you can actually watch along as Shaun and I make the show. 

If you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options. We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon, or find links to everything we do at

Modern Uses

Go Gator and Muddy the Water - Writings By Zora Neale Hurston · 1999

A wonderful discovery of folklore writings-many previously unpublished-by Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Book - The Dictionary of Clichés: A Word Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases and Almost-Pleasing Platitudes By Christine Ammer · 2013

The largest, most comprehensive, and most entertaining reference of its kind, The Dictionary of Clichés features more than four thousand unique clichés and common expressions. Author Christine Ammer explores the phrases and terms that enliven our language and uncovers expressions that have long been considered dead. With each entry, she includes a thorough definition, origin of the term, and an insightful example.

One of the included phrases in this book is muddy the water.

Book - Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism By Richa Nagar · 2014

In Muddying the Waters, Richa Nagar uses stories, encounters, and anecdotes as well as methodological reflections, to grapple with the complexity of working through solidarities, responsibility, and ethics while involved in politically engaged scholarship. Experiences that range from the streets of Dar es Salaaam to farms and development offices in North India inform discussion of the labor and politics of co-authorship, translation and genre blending in research and writing that cross multiple--and often difficult--borders, Nagar links the implicit assumptions, issues, and questions involved with scholarship and political action, and explores the epistemological risks and possibilities of creative research that brings these into intimate dialogue.

Despite this not quite being exactly our phrase, I have to mention one of my very favorite artists. And I’ll go ahead and share about an incredibly beautiful book I discovered while researching for this episode. 

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters By Michael Mahin was published in 2017

A picture book celebration of the indomitable Muddy Waters, a blues musician whose fierce and electric sound laid the groundwork for what would become rock and roll.

The illustrations of this book are absolutely wonderful and the writing is phenomenal. Here is one excerpt: 

The song Muddy the Water by Fatboy was released in 2019. It includes the following lyrics: 

Oh I'm trapped inside these human bones

You know she can't get in if I don't get out

That girl muddy my water

That girl muddy my water

Nobody told her not to mess with the water

Wrap up...

This is a fairly straightforward history for a phrase, which I found to be a slightly entertaining juxtaposition of circumstances, considering the phrase itself means to confuse or complicate understanding. It was interesting to see the way people have used it over time and to once again recognize that politics seem to be a rather consistent source of new adaptations and uses within the English language in addition to many other social aspects of life. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have an example of this phrase we should have included this week, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on any of our social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram all @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


If you have a chance, leave us a review on your listening app of choice, or head over to where you can leave a review for the show as a whole, or individual episodes of the show.

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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