I am reading The Five Jars by Montague Rhodes James. Its first sentence says:

It is a wood with a stream at the edge of it; the water is brown and clear.

I cannot well imagine water that is brown and at the same time is clear.

Does that mean you can see the brown riverbed through the clear water? Or is the water actually clear and brown?

It is a wood with a stream at the edge of it; the water is brown and clear. On the other side of it are flat meadows, and beyond these a hillside quite covered with an oak wood. The stream has alder-trees along it, and is pretty well shaded over; the sun hits it in places and makes flecks of light through the leaves

...When I woke up I still lay, feeling very lazy, on the grass with my head within a foot or two of the edge of the stream and listened to its noise, until in five or six minutes - whether I began to doze off again or not does not much matter ― the water-sound became like words, and said, "Trickle-up, trickle-up," an immense number of times. It pleased me, for though in poetry we hear a deal about babbling brooks, and though I am particularly fond of the noise they make, I never was able before to pretend that I could hear any words. And when I did finally get up and shake myself awake I thought I would anyhow pay so much attention to what the water said as to stroll up the stream instead of down. So I did: it took me through the flat meadows, but still every now and then I heard the same peculiar noise which sounded like Trickle-up.

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    It means as much to me (native speaker) as it does to you. I don't think this has anything to do with your level of English. It could be the riverbed, the reflection of the wood in the river or something else.
    – gotube
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:09
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    Normally, in English too, "brown water" means the water is brown, or it's got brown dirt stirred up in it. But it says "brown and clear", so it's not dirt. I suppose it could mean that the water itself is brown and transparent, like tea, but that makes no sense in a river.
    – gotube
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:26
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    Brown yet clear stream/river water can be a result of dissolved organic carbon. telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/3315369/… Nov 14, 2022 at 7:42
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    Sounds like a stream fed from turf moors. The water is clear but brown, like brown glass.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 14, 2022 at 12:32
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    Dark water has fascinating ecological (and direct human) implications. In the Amazon basin the parallel situation is called blackwater. See Wikipedia re blackwater rivers: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwater_river
    – InColorado
    Nov 14, 2022 at 20:21

2 Answers 2


Brown glass is brown and yet transparent, isn't it?

The water of streams and rivers in moorland districts is often coloured brown from contact with peat, even when it is otherwise clean and clear.

I suppose whether or not an English speaker is puzzled by the description depends on whether they have ever visited such a district!

  • 3
    Beer can be brown and clear or brown and cloudy. Nov 14, 2022 at 11:03
  • 9
    Here are some photos of the River Swale in Yorkshire, England. Nov 14, 2022 at 12:02
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    This discussion reminds me of my chemistry teacher's perennial complaints about students saying "clear" when they meant "colourless". Nov 14, 2022 at 14:53
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    @Nigutumok It isn't necessarily all that brown, though, if you scoop it up. It just looks brown with all the other water. Brown water isn't rare--it just has some brown sediment dissolved in it--eg. dirt or iron.
    – trlkly
    Nov 15, 2022 at 0:54
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    It depends on your use of the word 'clear'. One definition is "Not obscured or darkened". If it is brown glass, it is darkened. Glass is usually defined as 'clear', or 'tinted', it cannot be both.
    – Astralbee
    Nov 15, 2022 at 8:37

English speakers would be asking the same questions. There is no specific idiomatic meaning and it is not a common phrase.

It could be describing the opacity - ie that it is translucent; partially transparent but having some brown colour. As well as being an antonym of 'opaque', 'clear' can also mean free of obstruction, so perhaps it means the water was brown in colour but there was no detritus or debris floating in it. It could also mean both of these things. The broader context of the quote might help.

  • 1
    Good point about free of obstruction. And it's an interesting fact that we often do say "transparent" when we mean "translucent" -- any degree of see-through is called "transparent" in informal speech. (Though I wouldn't say the same of "clear"!) Nov 14, 2022 at 13:01

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