Boil the Ocean

“Making Heads or Tails of Idioms” Newsletter. Volume 1. Issue 2.

Original Release: 8/30/2010

I know… I took a 6-month hiatus from the last email…but now that I’m working, I seemed to have found the time;)

What was said? Boil the ocean

Did someone really say that? Yes- day 3 training at work….the slide read “60% of data collection and analysis effort is wasted in a typical ‘boil the ocean’ approach….”

What does it mean? Boiling the ocean is an idiomatic phrase that can have a few related meanings. One is that it is obviously impossible to boil the ocean. Where would you start? Thus boiling the ocean can refer to an impossible task — something so complicated it’s hard to know where to begin.

Another definition of the boiling the ocean 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 you are concerned with a minutia of fine details. This may mean that you’re being thorough or it could mean that you have made something so complex you can never accomplish your goals.

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. If you have something you want to accomplish, you may be able to reduce the steps it takes to accomplish it. On the other hand, if you keep adding on extra details and trying to “cover all your bases,” you may be accused of boiling the ocean. It’s also possible that if you do too much or plan for too many contingencies, you can never see your idea or concept come to fruition.

Origin: This is the one most websites agree upon: When asked how the US should handle the problem of German U-boats, during World War I, Will Rogers 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.”


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