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1. Literally, to push water away with one's feet and hands in order to keep one's head above the surface. If you fall overboard, just tread water until we are able to circle back around and pick you up. He's terrified to go on a boat because he can't even tread water.
2. By extension, to maintain one's current status without making any significant progress; to be barely able to maintain one's current position or status. The market for paperback books has shrunk so much in recent years that our company has really just been treading water recently. With all the expenses we have to deal with in the new house, it feels like we're just treading water between paychecks.
Expend effort that maintains one's status but does not make much progress toward a goal, as in He was just treading water from paycheck to paycheck. This idiom alludes to the term's literal meaning, that is, "keep one's head above water by remaining upright and pumping the legs."
COMMON If you tread water, you fail to make progress, but instead just continue to do the same things. I feel as if I've actually taken a step forward, and that I'm not just treading water. Without any hope of promotion, I feel I'm just treading water. Note: When swimmers tread water, they move their arms and legs in order to keep their head above the water without actually making progress in any direction.
tread water1 maintain an upright position in the water by moving the feet with a walking movement and the hands with a downward circular motion. 2 fail to advance or make progress.
2 1996 Financial Post The NAPM index…has been treading water since the spring, and that is making a lot of people nervous.
1 keep yourself upright in deep water by moving your arms and legs
2 make no progress while you are waiting for something to happen: For the past year I’ve been treading water, in a boring job with no hope of promotion.
1. To keep the head above water while in an upright position by pumping the legs.
2. To expend effort but make little or no progress to achievement of a goal or an end.