Q: Is the correct phrase “standing water” or “sitting water”? Or can we can have it both ways?
A: “Standing water,” the usual expression, has referred to still or stagnant water since the late 14th century. It’s overwhelmingly more popular than “sitting water,” which as far as we can tell didn’t show up in print until about 20 years ago.
In searching the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, we found 2,985 examples of “standing water” and only 17 for “sitting water.”
A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books published from 2000 to 2008 had similar results.
Of the two phrases, only “standing water” is mentioned in the eight online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted. Collins has a separate entry for the expression, but several others mention it in their entries for the adjective “standing.”
Collins defines “standing water” as “any body of stagnant water, including puddles, ponds, rainwater, drain water, reservoirs, etc.” It has several examples, including this one: “Home to fish, birds and other wildlife, standing water is also enjoyed by recreational fishermen and walkers.”
Of the other standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and Webster’s New World define the adjective “standing” as still, not flowing, or stagnant, and give “standing water” as an example. American Heritage defines “standing” similarly, but doesn’t give an example.
None of the entries for the adjective “sitting” in the standard dictionaries we’ve checked include the sense of still or stagnant water.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “standing water,” but within its entry for the adjective “standing” it includes this sense: “Of water, a piece of water: Still, not ebbing or flowing, stagnant.”
The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):
“In dyches is water y-norisshede and y-keppe, bothe rennynge and stondynge water” (“In ditches is water nourished and kept, both running and standing water”).
The OED doesn’t have an entry for “sitting water,” and its entry for the adjective “sitting” doesn’t include still or stagnant water as a sense.
The earliest example we’ve found for “sitting water” used in this sense is from a Nov. 18, 1998, article in the Coronado (Calif.) Eagle and Journal about the discovery of abandoned oil tanks beneath homes:
“At one tank site, there is a slight sheen to sitting water, indicating some oil is on top of it.”