What is "Boiling the Ocean"?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
"Boiling the ocean" is an idiomatic expression referring to its vastness, and can relate to any seemingly impossible task.
"Boiling the ocean" is an idiomatic expression referring to its vastness, and can relate to any seemingly impossible task.

"Boiling the ocean" is an idiomatic phrase that can have a few related meanings. One is that it is obviously impossible to boil all of the water in the ocean, so it can refer to an impossible task — something so complicated it’s hard to know where to begin. Another definition is used in business and tends to relate to projects that are hugely complex, perhaps overly so. The idea of boiling the whole ocean means that someone is concerned with a minutia of fine details. This may mean that someone is being thorough or it could mean that he has made something so complex he can never accomplish his goals.

Starting homework may be like boiling the ocean for kids with learning disabilities.
Starting homework may be like boiling the ocean for kids with learning disabilities.

There are few potential origins of this phrase. One is typically credited to Will Rogers who, when asked how the US should handle the problem of German U-boats during World War I, recommended that the ocean be boiled. A reporter asking the question supposedly followed up by inquiring how this could be done, to which Rogers replied: “I’m just the idea man.” Others attribute the phrase to Mark Twain.

Written homework may be like boiling the ocean for children who have difficulty with schoolwork.
Written homework may be like boiling the ocean for children who have difficulty with schoolwork.

Some people, when they have ideas, may be warned not to boil the ocean, which makes a good deal of sense. It can be applied to lots of situations in business and personal life. When someone has something he wants to accomplish, it's often best to reduce the steps it takes to accomplish it rather than to keep adding on extra details. It’s also possible that, if someone does too much or plans for too many contingencies, he can never see his idea or concept come to fruition.

There are many incredibly complex situations that require tons of thought and planning, however, and they may seem impossible. It can help to look at the necessary steps to resolve a situation or to create a solution, and see if there’s any chance of eliminating certain steps and still reaching a goal. Some people get understandably too immersed in total solutions to appreciate the small steps that represent small victories.

Occasionally, people will see kids practice their own interpretation of boiling the ocean. When a child looks at a hard task, he may be so caught up with planning that he can never get started. This is especially the case for kids with certain disabilities, like non-verbal learning disorder. Getting homework started, especially written homework, is challenging since a person with this disorder is attempting to solve for every contingency before writing a word.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent InfoBloom contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent InfoBloom contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon346445

Fukushima radiation leaks have caused the ocean to boil off the coasts of japan.

anon335026

Or if the atmospheric pressure is reduced sufficiently, the oceans will boil at 60F.

anon87346

I've found that "boiling the ocean" is a label often used by people (managers?) who would rather not attack a complex task. It becomes an excuse not to try, or even to examine the possibilities.

In a lot of cases, the task at hand does not require the entire ocean to be brought to a boil; rather certain large, complex goals can be accomplished by raising the temperature of a limited amount of surface water by a fraction of a degree.

anon58766

If the earth warmed sufficiently, the ocean would boil.

anon42358

Boiling the ocean is from Aesop.

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    • "Boiling the ocean" is an idiomatic expression referring to its vastness, and can relate to any seemingly impossible task.
      By: EpicStockMedia
      "Boiling the ocean" is an idiomatic expression referring to its vastness, and can relate to any seemingly impossible task.
    • Starting homework may be like boiling the ocean for kids with learning disabilities.
      By: galam
      Starting homework may be like boiling the ocean for kids with learning disabilities.
    • Written homework may be like boiling the ocean for children who have difficulty with schoolwork.
      By: SergiyN
      Written homework may be like boiling the ocean for children who have difficulty with schoolwork.