tip of the iceberg

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A photomontage of what a whole iceberg might look like. The term tip of the iceberg refers to the fact that only a small portion of a floating iceberg is visible above the water line.

From the fact that floating icebergs typically have about nine-tenths of their volume below the surface of the water. Early 20th-century uses of the term are believed to have been influenced by the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on 15 April 1912 after it struck an iceberg.[1]



tip of the iceberg (plural tips of icebergs or (rare) tips of the icebergs)

  1. (idiomatic) A small indication of a larger possibility; the first part encountered of a problem that is much bigger than it seems.
    This is only the tip of the iceberg. Our time together can become much more exciting.
    • 1968 July 18, [Harrison Lee] Winter, Circuit Judge, “[Appendix A] United States of America, Appellee, versus Bernard D. Grossman, Apellant”, in Bernard D. Grossman, Petitioner, v. United States of America, Respondent: Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, [Richmond, Va.]: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, page 8a:
      It is sufficient that the former provided the setting for implanting in the minds of the jury the notion that Sinhel had engaged in other related crimes and making that notion explicit with regard to the defendant by the "tip of the iceberg" argument. In short, the prosecutor insinuated Sinhel had been given many gifts and gratuities for an illegal purpose, probably from the defendant, beyond those for which the defendant was charged and beyond those for which proof was offered at the trial. The prejudice of a defendant of inviting conviction on facts—if they be such—dehors the record is counter to the basic concept of fairness.
    • 1970, J. K. Brierley, “The Iceberg of Disease”, in Biology and the Social Crisis: A Social Biology for Everyman, 1st American edition, Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, →ISBN, page 117:
      The exposed tip of the iceberg, the recognized illness that brings a man to his doctor, is relatively small compared with the hidden mass of undetected disease, or 'at risk' people, in the population.
    • 1977 September, “The Tip of the Iceberg”, in John H[arold] Johnson, editor, Ebony, volume XXXII, number 11, Chicago, Ill.: Johnson Publishing Co., →ISSN, →OCLC, page 132, column 2:
      The blacking out of the lights of the nation's biggest city could be a blessing in disguise. It brought to light, dramatically, the deep unrest in a large part of the Black and Latin population and it emphasized the fact that something must be done and soon to quiet that unrest. And it may be that the current unrest is just the tip of the iceberg.
    • 1996, Peter Medawar, “Scientific Fraud”, in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice: And Other Classic Essays on Science, Oxford, Oxfordshire, New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 196:
      The number of dishonest scientists cannot, of course, be known, but even if they were common enough to justify scary talk of ‘tips of icebergs’ they have not been so numerous as to prevent science’s having become the most successful enterprise (in terms of the fulfilment of declared ambitions) that human beings have ever engaged upon.
    • 1999, Leila J. Rupp, “In the Beginning: Same-sex Sexuality in Early America”, in A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-sex Love in America, Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press, →ISBN, page 30:
      Records document nineteen legal cases involving the charge of sodomy and five executions from 1607 to 1740, although this is no doubt just the tip of the iceberg of actual incidents. Even the minimal evidence we do have suggests that ordinary people, in contrast to the ministers and legislators, did not always harshly judge people accused of same-sex sexuality.
    • 2001, Kathryn Hendley, “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Business Disputes in Russia”, in Peter Murrell, editor, Assessing the Value of Law in Transition Economies, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, →ISBN, page 20:
      [O]nly a tiny portion of disagreements—the proverbial tip of the iceberg—ever ends up in court. Most agreements drop out along the way, either because they are settled or because the allegedly wronged party decides that the potential costs of proceeding outweigh the potential benefits
    • 2004, Vali Hawkins Mitchell, “Rotations: What is Spinning?”, in Philip Jan Rothstein, editor, Emotional Terrors in the Workplace: Protecting Your Business’ Bottom Line: Emotional Continuity Management in the Workplace, Brookfield, Conn.: Rothstein Associates, →ISBN, page 48:
      All human beings have secret, hidden, below-the-surface dimensions as well as outer, visible, and clear demonstrations. [...] Although it is not possible to see the hidden it is very possible to see the smallest units, the micro-signs, the tips of the icebergs in people, and then to make some small hunches or theories about risk.
    • 2014 September 23, “a teacher”, “Choosing a primary school: A teacher’s guide for parents”, in Katharine Viner, editor, The Guardian[1], London: Guardian News & Media, →ISSN, →OCLC, archived from the original on 25 March 2019:
      Sats don't reflect the bigger picture; rather the tip of an iceberg in the only subjects that politicians think matter.
    • 2021 October 10, Caroline Anders, “A TikTok bone salesman’s wall of spines reignites ethical debate over selling human remains”, in The Washington Post[2]:
      This collection is not even the tip of the human remains iceberg, according to Damien Huffer, an adjunct research professor at Carleton University in Canada. Collectors across the world have much larger collections than JonsBones, he said, and the trade far predates TikTok.

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  1. ^ iceberg, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2012.

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