Tip A Canoe
Where did “don’t rock the boat” get started? Gus/Grayling, MI
It’s much easier to say what it means. Most of us have ridden in canoes or rowboats with a rambunctious youngster or twitchy passenger, so we recognize it as a salutary warning not to mess with the equilibrium. It’s pretty easy to upset the balance of a small craft, thus exposing oneself to the danger of tipping over.
This is such a universal and ancient experience that I’d be surprised if someone were able to cite the very first literal use of the term. Metaphorically, it means to let things be, to avoid upsetting routine ways, to honor the status quo. It is akin to another nautical warning, don’t make waves.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “to rock the boat” is attested from 1931, but it doesn’t give an example. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this from the same year: Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: an informal history of the nineteen-twenties vi. 156. “Unfortunate publicity had a tendency to rock the boat.”
The idiom seems to reflect a cautious streak in human behavior, so I suppose we could pair it with don’t change horses at midstream, along with let sleeping dogs lie. Tie them all together and we have don’t rock the dog to sleep at midstream. Sound advice, dawg.
SIDEBAR: Rock the Boat (The Hues Corporation)
SIDEBAR: Don’t Rock the Boat (Bob Marley)
SIDEBAR: Guys and Dolls: Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat
(substitute @ for AT above)
Labels: rock the boat