Ships passing in the night is a phrase that refers to two people who cross paths, maybe sharing a few words with each other, only to separate shortly after and continue on their way, never to see each other again.
Origin Of ‘Ships Passing In The Night’
The ocean is a big place, so what are the odds of two ships sailing directly past each other? I have no idea, but it’s probably not very high. If it does occur, though, and it happens to be at night, the ships might shine a light on one another in order to acknowledge the other’s presence. The shining of the light can be seen as a greeting, as if the ships are talking to one another. However, it’s not long until they pass each other by, disappearing into the vast ocean under the night sky, never to see the other again! Well, who knows, it’s possible that they cross paths later down the road.
Anyway, at some point, this sort of ship passing situation began to be applied to people who meet for the first time, only to part ways shortly after, disappearing into the vastness of the earth. Such people are like two ships passing at night.
The idiom at least over 150 years old. It is written in Tales of a Wayside Inn, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, where it reads:
“Ships that pass in the night, and speak [to] 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.”
- I met a girl today who was visiting from Canada. She’ll be traveling back home in a few days, so like two ships passing in the night, I doubt I’ll see her again anytime soon.
- I saw an old friend from high school when I was out shopping at the mall. I wanted to go say hi, but I lost sight of him for a few seconds and he disappeared. It was like two ships passing at night.