Green’s Dictionary of Slang

waterworks n.

1. tears.

[UK]Thackeray Vanity Fair I 187: The water-works again began to play.
[UK]T. Hughes Tom Brown’s School-Days (1896) 237: Sneaking little brute [...] clapping on the water-works just in the hardest place.
[Scot]Dundee Courier 14 July 3/4: Can you bring the dead back to life even if you [...] contracted with the Chelsea waterworks for an unintermitting supply of tears.
[UK]J. Greenwood Tag, Rag & Co. 93: She’s had the waterworks going all day.
[US]W.M. Raine Bucky O’Connor (1910) 49: Cut out the water works, kid.
[UK]A. Brazil Fourth Form Friendship 23: ‘Do turn off the water-works, there’s a good girl’.
[UK]G. Squiers Aerbut Paerks, of Baernegum 11: Then Gaertie’s old woman started the waterwaerks.
[US]Maines & Grant Wise-crack Dict. 14/1: Shut off the waterworks – Cease weeping.
[UK]R. Llewellyn None But the Lonely Heart 226: Here come the waterworks again.
[Can]M. Richler Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1964) 178: Will you stop the water-works, please?
[Aus]B. Humphries Barry McKenzie [comic strip] in Complete Barry McKenzie (1988) 96: I reckon I’d croak it too if my missus got the waterworks every time she thought about my measurements.
[UK]P. Fordham Inside the Und. 169: That starts the waterworks off again.
[Ire]R.E. Tangney Other Days Around Me 188: It was easy to pick out the hardened travellers from the first-timers; the smiling groups contrasted strongly with those that were providing the water-works.
[Scot]I. Welsh Filth 328: Sorry Shirley, we say, rising, as she starts the waterworks.
[Ire]P. Howard Miseducation of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (2004) 135: That starts her off, the old waterworks.
[Aus]J.J. DeCeglie Drawing Dead [ebook] She really turned it on then. Waterworks, sobs, gnashing of teeth, the whole third act.
[US]T. Robinson ‘Angelo Death’ in Dirty Words [ebook] [S]he started crying [...] It humiliated Joe [...] to be so weak as to not even be able to tell her to shut the waterworks off.
[UK]R. Milward Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2023) 417: [B]racing myself for Sean’s waterworks.
[US]S.A. Crosby Razorblade Tears 16: That pregnant pause was the prelude to the waterworks.

2. attrib. use of sense 1.

[US]‘Artemus Ward’ Artemus Ward in London in Complete Works (1922) 475: Sometimes the editor does the ‘vater vorks business,’ as Mr. Samuel Weller called weeping, and makes pathetic appeals to his subscribers.
[UK]M.E. Kennard Girl in the Brown Habit II 13: Now don’t howl and cry your eyes out. The water-work business only annoys me.

3. the urinary organs; also attrib.

[Scot]Order of the Beggar's Benison and Merryland (1892) 68: ’Tis month the first, when pipes do burst, / We often find precarious, / And danger lurks in waterworks’.
[US]Venus’ Miscellany (NY) 23 May n.p.: A pool of water, suggesting an overflow of private waterworks.
[UK]Cythera’s Hymnal [as 1732].
[UK]Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.
[UK]F.W. Maitland letter 6 July in Letters (1965) 249: I gather from Albutt that the immediate cause of death was, as A. put it, ‘in the water works’ [OED].
[Ire]Joyce Ulysses 345: Cissy said thanks and came back with her tongue and said uncle said his waterworks were out of order.
[Ire]‘Flann O’Brien’ At Swim-Two-Birds 202: If you try that game I’ll take you [...] by the scruff of the bloody neck and give you a kick in the waterworks!
[P. Jordan ‘I’m in the Army Now’ in People’s Voice (NY) 9 May 31/2: [Y]ou pass to the urinalysis where your water supply comes in handy].
[UK]J. Orton Diaries (1986) 6 Apr. 132: I really didn’t come here to discuss your water-works.
[US](con. 1900s) G. Swarthout Shootist 18: I have trouble with my waterworks. It hurts to piddle.
[US]Maledicta IV:2 (Winter) 182: We have recognised the effects of the flow of this letchwater by referring to the lady’s water-box, [...], -engine, -works or -mill.
[UK]P. Barker Union Street 256: ‘I suppose she can manage the toilet all right?’ He looked at Mrs Bell for the first time and yelled, ‘How are your waterworks, dear?’.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 19 June 17: Lemon Barley Water can be recommended for [...] waterworks complaints.
[Ire]P. Howard Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress 135: Oh, she’s a martyr to her waterworks is Mrs Mulligan.

4. the vagina.

[UK]Covent Garden Jester (2nd edn) 7: A pretty young woman being at Vauxhall to see the fire-works [...] and complaining of her shortness, a young man offered her to stand on his shoulders. Then, says she, you cannot see the fire-works. True, said he, but I shall see the water-works, which will please me much better.
[US] in Randolph & Legman Ozark Folksongs and Folklore (1992) I 579: It’s when I meet a pretty girl, you bet I will (or) try, / To slip it up her water-works, root, hog or die.

5. one who weeps, a ‘crybaby’.

[US] 7 Nov. 🌐 She [Jennifer Aniston] also takes time to point out she’s not the waterworks she has been made out to be since her marriage went sour. ‘I’m pegged as a crier, aren’t I? I was upset about the Vanity Fair article. [...] It happened for a second and then it was over.’.

In phrases

turn on the waterworks (v.) (also turn on the main)

to start crying; turn off the..., to stop crying; also var. turn off the faucet.

[UK]Cambridge Indep. Press 8 Jan. 7/7: The readiest waterworks to turn on are ladies’ tears.
[UK]‘Cuthbert Bede’ Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1982) III 334: You’ve no idea how she turned on the main and did the briny.
[Scot]Glasgow Herald 10 Jan. 5/3: A maudlin, sentimental, slobbering, snivelling crearture [...] who would set up a whine and turn on the waterworks on every conceivable occasion.
[US]H. Green Actors’ Boarding House (1906) 38: That’s right. Turn on the waterworks.
[Aus]C.J. Dennis ‘The Play’ Bulletin (Sydney) 16 July 47/2: Then Juli-et wakes up an’ sees ’im there, / Turns on the water-works an’ tears ’er ’air.
[Aus]G.H. Lawson Dict. of Aus. Words And Terms 🌐 WATERWORKS, TO TURN ON THE — To cry.
[US]M. West Babe Gordon (1934) 67: Doin’ the sob stuff and turnin’ on the water-works.
[UK]E. Raymond Child of Norman’s End (1967) 51: She could turn on the waterworks at the least provocation.
[US]J.T. Farrell World I Never Made 247: ‘Come on, for Christ sake, turn off the faucet,’ he said, seeing her in tears.
[US](con. 1944) J.H. Burns Gallery (1948) 300: These Ginsoes [...] do so much turnin on of the waterworks.
[Aus]D. Stivens Jimmy Brockett 147: There was nothing for it but to sack young Joyce. [...] When I told her she turned on the waterworks.
[Aus]‘Nino Culotta’ Cop This Lot 75–6: How was yer sheila last night, Den? She turn on the water works?
[US]P. Conroy Great Santini (1977) 55: Just get her to turn off the waterworks.
[UK]P. Theroux Picture Palace 234: The sob started in my chest; I fought it, and then let go, and in front of all those people I turned on the waterworks.
[Aus]B. Humphries Traveller’s Tool 26: She’d always pretend to turn on the waterworks.
[US]C. Hiaasen Tourist Season (1987) 333: Keyes knew she was about to turn on the waterworks.
[UK]Guardian Guide 3–9 July 9: A man who [...] is still able to turn on the waterworks at a moment’s notice.
[Ire]P. Howard PS, I Scored the Bridesmaids 44: I [...] get the fock of out there just as she turns on the waterworks.