Ships passing in the night

Ships passing in the night, sometimes rendered as ships that pass in the night, is an idiom that has been in use since the mid-1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom ships passing in the night, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

The expression ships passing in the night may describe the relationship between two people who meet and have an intense relationship for a brief time and then part ways, never to meet again. For instance, two people who meet on vacation and have a two-week love affair, then part and never see each other again, may be said to be ships passing in the night. The idiom ships passing in the night may also describe a situation in which two people who have an ongoing intimate relationship are not able to be together for a prolonged period of time. For instance, married doctors who work opposite shifts, one at night and one during the day, will rarely see each other and may be said to be ships passing in the night. The original usage was ships that pass in the night, taken directly from a poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow that was published in 1863, Tales of a Wayside Inn: ““Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness…” Ships that pass in the night was once the more popular usage, but today the phrase ships passing in the night is used much more often.


As Bouye arrived Chris Harris, Jr. departed for L.A., like two ships passing in the night. (Sports Illustrated)

Like ships passing in the night, the Trump administration and the government of California are cruising in opposite directions on health-care spending. (The Daily Breeze)

According to Selene, the two were “ships passing in the night” as they pursued their separate careers. (The Elko Daily Free Press)

‘We don’t see enough of each other, we’re like ships that pass in the night, but it works. (The Daily Mail)

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