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What Is The Meaning Of “Ships Passing In The Night?”

The common phrase “ships passing in the night” is usually used to refer to people who cross paths without seeing each other afterward. In everyday speech, it describes two people who may have had a meaningful connection but simply crossed paths. 

Additionally, when two people are like “ships passing in the night,” they usually greet each other and exchange simple pleasantries before parting. 

How Did “Ships Passing In The Night” Originate? 

In general, it is not common for two ships to pass close to each other. However, it is even more uncommon at night. At night, passing ships may shine a light or honk a horn to make each other’s presence known. In the idiom of two ships passing in the night, the honk or light acts as a greeting, like how people may say hello or acknowledge each other. 

After the ships (or people) greet, they continue on their paths separately from each other. In other words, people who cross paths for a short time act like two passing ships at night. 

Most sources track this idiom to at least 150 years ago. One of its first appearances occurs in a collection called Tales of a Wayside Inn, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863.

Examples Of Using “Ships Passing In The Night”

  • John and Sarah worked at the same place. They always wanted to learn more about each other. Unfortunately, they never got to say more than a cheerful “hello” or “goodbye.” Alas, even if they were meant to know each other more, they are currently like two ships passing in the night. 
  • Our relationship is like two ships passing in the night. We say “hello,” we exchange pleasantries, and then we leave without ever learning more about each other! 
  • Two souls who are meant to be connected yet fail to do so at any chance are said to be akin to ships passing in the night. 
  • “Like ships passing in the night, the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianist Jeremy Denk missed each other by a year at Indiana University.” – The New York Times
  • “I didn’t know her, and I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but we were always like ships passing in the night: We were often on the same bills or at the same festival but on different nights.” – Huffington Post

You can find more common expressions explained here

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By Ryan Fisher

Ryan holds degrees from Pacific Lutheran University and specializes in proofreading, editing, and content writing with an emphasis on business communication.

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