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The bucket is leaking from top

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 13, 2008 at 08:40:

In Reply to: The bucket is leaking from top posted by R. Berg on April 11, 2008 at 17:51:

: : : What is the origin & meaning of phrase "Bucket is leaking from top"? Normally, a bucket leaks from bottom.

: : I don't think this is a standard phrase, as such; when I Google the whole thing, the only hit I can find is your own question! However, the metaphor of a leaking bucket is often used in economic and business writing to convey the idea of continuous small losses - e.g. of customers, of revenue, of manpower, etc. If the bucket is said to be leaking from the top, that simply means that these losses are occurring at the top rather than the lower levels of the organisation. (VSD)

: It might also refer to leaks of information: the corporate executives are telling secrets to the press. ~rb

The instances that I found, by an Internet search, of a "leaking bucket" or "leaky bucket" were two rather interesting ones. Arthur Okun, an economist with the Administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, found that measures to transfer money from the rich to the poor by means of tax policy involved losses, as though carried in a leaky bucket.

Traffic engineers have devised a "leaky bucket" algorithm to smooth controlled traffic flow rather than have one solid mass of vehicles, then a hiatus, then another tight mass.

But this almost certainly has nothing to do with "the bucket is leaking from the top." I have seen references to "leaking from the top," without any bucket, referring to deliberate leaks by the management of an organization for purposes of a kind not suitable for an open announcement. An example that I've seen was the leak by Libby Scooter. (One theory is that he was not really a willing leaker, but was the chosen scapegoat.)

"Leaking from the top" is easy to explain as the leaking of information by top officials. But the bucket remains, in my mind, an unusual and unneeded addition. Perhaps it is the result of two sayings becoming somehow conflated. There is a Greek myth of a group of female demigods or the like being punished by having to carry water in a leaky jar. Perhaps some versions of the story call it a leaky bucket.