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The following is a passage from an article on the origin of the idiom fall off the wagon:

The term references the water wagons which were once drawn by horses to water down dirt roads so that they did not become dusty.

What does water down mean? Does it simply mean to water like watering plants and the down is just there to add emphasis because the water pours downwards? I looked up the phrase and I couldn't find any definitions relevant to the context. The senses of water down I found are:

  1. to make a liquid weaker by adding water
  2. to change a speech, a piece of writing, etc. in order to make it less strong or offensive
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    In this context, to water down the road simply means to wet the road. This is made clear by the remainder of the sentence, which explains that this was being done so that they did not become dusty. – FumbleFingers Jun 9 '13 at 14:21
  • @FumbleFingers: Please convert your comment to an answer. – Stephan Jun 10 '13 at 8:38
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    This is a really cool question. I checked at least five dictionaries, and only found the two meanings listed here. Yet the phrase sounded perfectly natural to me. Gotta love it when an ELL member finds a deficiency in published dictionaries. – J.R. Jun 10 '13 at 10:12
  • @J.R.: You can hardly expect dictionaries to list every possible preposition in such contexts. In my brush examples, for instance, I'd say that only brush up (and maybe brush off) can ever really be "phrasal verbs", and in my specific contexts they don't apply anyway. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '13 at 14:18
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    @Fumble: I'm not marveling that the dictionaries don't list "every possible preposition." I only marveled that they have a separate listing for this particular preposition, but don't list all the meanings. (It's common for a meaning to be missed here and there, but I can usually find some dictionary that will list that extra meaning.) You needn't marvel if you don't want to; I'm going to keep marveling despite your pooh-poohing. Don't water down my joy. ;^) – J.R. Jun 10 '13 at 20:05
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As OP has already established, there's a phrasal verb to water down (literally and figuratively, to dilute). But that's not relevant to the cited usage here, where it simply means to [make] wet. Per my comment, this is clear from the context, which explicitly says that the roads were dampened to reduce the dust.

OP is correct in supposing that down in this instance simply refers to the fact that the water is splashed down[wards] onto the road. But I think it's fair to say the semantic content of the word is negligible here, since the meaning should be just as clear even if it's omitted.


Taking a different verb, it can be seen that [optional] prepositions are often added after common verbs of action where the [minimal] semantic content of the preposition can be largely ignored...

He ate his tea in a hurry, brushed up his jacket, and started off.
The man lifted himself off of the ground, brushed off his jacket and walked away.
He stood before the mirror while his valet brushed out his jacket.

In those examples, native speakers would be unlikely to register any difference in meaning if those prepositions were transposed - or more importantly, if they were omitted altogether.

In my examples, to brush up can sometimes be a "phrasal verb" (to review; refresh one's memory) - but that clearly doesn't fit the context, so it can be discounted.

My advice in such contexts is to consider the possibility of a phrasal verb usage, but if that doesn't quickly suggest a credible interpretation, assume the preposition isn't particularly significant. Often it'll be an almost random choice (but don't add such prepositions yourself unless you're familiar with the usage).

  • Could "down" be referring to ensuring that dust does not go up? – Andrew Grimm Jun 11 '13 at 9:35
  • @Andrew: Well, as I said, it seems unlikely to me that most native speakers really bother to think about exactly what (if anything) the word down reflects here. Note that we often hose down or hose off a patio, for example. Probably down because that's where you direct the water, or off because you're sluicing debris off/away from the paved area. – FumbleFingers Jun 11 '13 at 14:48

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