Catch Word #135 – Like water off a duck’s back

When someone says something negative or critical about you, sometimes it can bother or upset you. But it’s important not to take things like this too personally, just like this week’s expression: like water off a duck’s back. In this episode, we look at idioms that mean that you don’t let someone’s negative comments affect you. We think that’s good advice. Check out this episode to hear about brushing things off and constructive criticism.


Expressions included in the learning materialsLearn to speak natural English

  • To get the hang of something
  • To let something get to you
  • Like water off a duck’s back
  • Constructive criticism
  • To nag
  • To brush something off
  • Right off the bat
  • To suck
  • To put your nose to the grindstone
  • To laugh something off
  • To get under your skin
  • Cool
  • Not to sweat something

Sample transcript

Harp:              Today we’re going to look at expressions that are about not letting criticism or something negative get to you.

Maura:            That’s right. So these expressions are used to mean you don’t want something to be important to you, you don’t want to let something negative affect you.

Harp:              Yeah. You don’t want to let it bother you. Should we get started?

Maura:            Let’s do it. So, the first expression today is like water off a duck’s back.

Harp:              Like water off a duck’s back.

Maura:            So something is described as being like water off a duck’s back. This is a longer expression, and of course when native speakers say it, they don’t say it slowly like I’m doing right now. They say it much faster. Harp, give an example.

Harp:              Water off a duck’s back.

Maura:            That’s right. So this expression, like water off a duck’s back, means that you’re not letting something have an effect on you, and of course this is usually something negative, because if something is positive, you wanna feel positive.

Harp:              Yeah. Like water off a duck’s back is when someone says something negative to you or if they criticise you, you don’t let it bother you, you don’t let it affect you.

Maura:            That’s right. It’s like something happens that’s negative and you make it feel less important, you tell yourself that something is not really important and you don’t let it bother you. You don’t let it get to you.

Harp:              Should we talk about a possible origin for this expression? Because personally, I think it’s kind of funny: like water off a duck’s back.

Maura:            You’re right. People listening might be asking themselves: “What do ducks have to do with something negative happening?” When a duck gets wet, the water does not go between the feathers and get the duck wet; it doesn’t affect the duck. It just rolls off the back of the duck and goes back into the pond or the water where the duck is. The same idea is true for negative comments or criticism. The person doesn’t let the negative comment affect them or touch them. They pretend it’s not important, they don’t think about it, they don’t let it bother them.

Harp:              Yes. This expression means that you don’t let something negative affect you. If it’s someone giving you negative criticism, you don’t let it affect you. That’s what it means.

Maura:            All right. Now let’s give a couple examples with like water off a duck’s back.

Harp:              Let’s do it.

Harp:              I’m really upset.

Maura:            Why? What happened?

Harp:              Well, you heard the way the boss yelled at me in the meeting, just because I didn’t meet one deadline.

Maura:            Well, you can’t take that personally. The boss is getting mad at everybody. You gotta be more like Sheila. She always gets in trouble for not meeting deadlines, and for her, it’s just like water off a duck’s back. She never seems to care.

Harp:              Yeah. I gotta not take it personally and not let it affect me.

Maura:            Yeah. The boss has probably already forgotten about it himself.

Harp:              Yeah. I just gotta make sure that the project’s really well done.

Maura:            In this example, one person was really upset about getting in trouble with her boss, about not meeting deadlines, and they talked about another colleague, Sheila, who didn’t get upset. She treated the boss’s comments like water off a duck’s back. They didn’t bother her and she didn’t get upset.

Harp:              Yeah. She didn’t let the boss get to her. She didn’t let his negative comments and his yelling at her get her upset.

Maura:            And that is important. Sometimes you should listen to criticism. This is actually called constructive criticism, when someone is just trying to give you advice so you can improve yourself and be better. That’s important, but it’s also important that if someone is saying something negative to you, you don’t take it too personally, either.

Podcast/Learning Materials: Culips English Podcast, Photo Culips