ships that pass in the night

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English[edit]

Alternative forms[edit]

Etymology[edit]

From a poetic metaphor by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882):

  • 1874, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn, part 3, section 4:
    Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
    Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
    So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
    Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Noun[edit]

ships that pass in the night (plural only)

  1. (idiomatic) Two or more people who encounter one another in a transitory, incidental manner and whose relationship is without lasting significance; two or more people who almost encounter one another, but do not do so.
    • 1922, P. G. Wodehouse, The Girl on the Boat, chapter 4:
      [H]e sat down and we got into conversation. There wasn't time to talk much. . . . We got along famously. But—oh, well, it was just another case of ships that pass in the night.
    • 1996 January 7, Isabel Wolff, "Arts & Entertainment: How We Met—Charles Collingwood and Judy Bennett," The Independent (UK) (retrieved 19 Oct 2013):
      We very seldom work together on The Archers, we're rarely in the same episodes, so often we're ships that pass in the night.
    • 2008, MaryRose Occhino, The Sign of the Dove, ISBN 9780425207314, page 135:
      They may have passed each other in the lobby or on the elevator of the building they worked in, but as far as I know, they never had the opportunity to even say hello. They were like two ships that passed in the night.
    • 2011 July 15, Kim Bielenberg, "18 holes with the Holywood hero," Independent (Ireland) (retrieved 19 Oct 2013):
      At one point, Gerry McIlroy had two jobs, putting in a 100-hour week as a cleaner and barman, while his mother Rosie worked a night shift in a factory. . . . Rosie and Gerry were like ships that passed in the night.
  2. (idiomatic, by extension) Things which have no significant connection or commonality.
    • 1966 Feb. 9, James Reston, "Ships Passing In The Night," St. Petersburg Times, page 14A (retrieved 19 Oct 2013):
      [T]he central figures in the action seem vaguely unrelated to one another, like ships passing in the night.
    • 1984, Susan C. Farkas, Changes & Challenges: City Schools in America, ISBN 9780937846957, page 129 (Google search result):
      "Education and business used to be like two ships that passed in the night," said Delaware Gov. Pierre duPont.
    • 1998 October 26, Jennifer Dunning, "In Performance: Dance," New York Times (retrieved 19 Oct 2013):
      In "Episode"—the opening dance—choreography, music, performances and underlying apparent themes looked like ships passing in the night. Nothing connected until a solo danced by a prowling, sensual Christopher Bonomo.
    • 1999, Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South, ISBN 9781570032479, page 68 (Google preview):
      Ordinarily the missionaries' religion and the slaves' religion were like two ships that pass in the night.
    • 2009 February 14, Richard Dawkins, "The Science Show: Interpreting Darwin's theory" (transcript of interview), abc.net.au (Australia) (retrieved 19 Oct 2013):
      As a connoisseur of enigmatic titles . . . the Gouldian title that gives me most pleasure is a joint paper, "Clams and brachiopods: Ships that pass in the night," in a learned journal.

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