Ships Passing In The Night

Meaning:

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.

In terms of “something that’s rare”:
1. Once in a blue moon

A ship sailing in the night.

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.”


Example Sentences

  • I met a nice woman 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 while I was shopping at the mall. I wanted to say hello, but before I could he disappeared into the crowd; it was like two ships passing at night.

Note: KYP has the meaning of numerous phrases and sayings, and their origin too! However, concerning the origin, I want to briefly mention something about the quotes you see on here. The purpose of these quotes is to give an idea on the phrase’s age. It does not necessarily mean the expression originated from that source or even that year. It simply means the phrase is at least as old as the quote, that is all.


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