Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Two Ships that Pass in the Night


Ships Passing in the Night

Ahoy there all my nerdy friends. It’s Mike. Fancy spotting you here in the endless podcast sea. Today we’re talking about an idiom, or idiomatic expression. What’s that? It’s a phrase with a meaning that is not clear just looking at the individual words, or by its literal meaning. My Two Cents was another episode about an idiomatic expression. Today since we’re here floating on the waters of the sea of etymology, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the origin of the phrase ‘ships passing in the night’.

So, I’ll use it in a sentence. If this expression is new to you, try to guess what it means based on the rest of the sentence.

“Sam and Mary are ships passing in the night”

Not enough information? Alright, let me get some examples from the internet.

"Brad Bang is one of the top male supermodels in the world. Grace Sol is a passionate but fragile actress. Despite their growing, troubled relationship, after a series of rehearsals and one fateful night, Grace falls for Brad, only to realize that despite needing each other, their love is forbidden."

Oh wait, this is from a article titled “Frank Ocean May Be Starring in Upcoming Film 'Ships Passing in the Night’”.

Oh God, what is happening? I’m sinking here! I’m floundering! Let me try again.

“Ships passing in the night during a full moon evening on the Chesapeake Bay.”

Wait, this is describing a picture of two actual ships, on water, passing in the night.

Alright, nevermind. I’m just going to tell you what it means. When two PEOPLE are like ships passing in the night, that means that they are only seeing each other for a brief moment when going in separate directions. This could be about two strangers perhaps only in each other’s lives for a brief moment. It could also be about two people in a relationship who, let’s say, have opposite work shifts. One person is just getting home when the other one is leaving. Those two people are ‘ships passing in the night’ or ‘ships that pass in the night’.

The origin of this idiomatic expression is easy to track down. That’s because it comes from a line in a poem.

In 1863, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a collection of poems entitled “Tales of a Wayside Inn”. In the book Longfellow presents a series of stories all told by different people in the tavern of the Wayside Inn, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, about 20 miles away from Longfellow’s home in Cambridge.

This memorable phrase, ‘ships that pass in the night’ can be found in the fourth section of the third part of this collection, entitled The Theologian’s Tale; Elizabeth, taken from which is run by the Maine Historical Society. The link can be found in the show notes if you’re interested in reading the entire collection.

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak 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.”

It’s a beautiful image to conjure up. He’s ultimately telling us that he’s creating a new figure of speech. The ocean of life… Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence…

Longfellow was a pretty quoteable fellow. His lasting influence has been long. Other quotes from Longfellow that have stayed with American culture through the years include “Footprints on the sands of time” and also “A boy’s will is the wind’s will”.

Over time, we start to see ‘ships that pass in the night’ being used alongside an alternative phrasing, ‘ships passing in the night’. ‘Ships passing in the night’ would eventually become the more commonly used version. Based on my research, that shift seemed to happen sometime in the 1970s and 80s. You can still find plenty of examples of both though. Go take a look! See what you find. Photographers seem to love captioning their maritime photographs with this expression.

Okay okay, I’ve found a better example. From a Huffington Post article: “My husband and I are anything but ships passing in the night; we’re more like two aging vessels mired in the harbor.”

- clip -

I also stumbled upon several blogs from mental health experts specializing in couples therapy.

Okay, and now I’ve thought of a scenario. I’ll play the role of Sam who works the night shift at the peanut butter factory. Sam has a partner who works at the factory where they stick peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. Shout out to Smucker’s Goober Grape. His partner’s shift is a regular 9 to 5. Sam says, “You know, with my night shift at the peanut butter factory, we never get to see each other anymore! We’re like to ships passing in the night. I’m going to bed when you’re just waking up!”

Or perhaps after a brief encounter at a pub chatting about 19th century New England poetry, one is pulled away by a family emergency, an accident at the Smucker’s Goober Grape factory perhaps, leaving the other to sigh and say, “oh well, two ships passing in the night”.

After the break we’ll talk a bit more about Longfellow. Don’t throw the episode overboard just yet. We’ll be right back.

— Break —

Welcome back. For all you Longfellow-heads out there, you can actually take a trip to Massachusetts to visit the very inn that inspired the poet way back in the 1860s. I’ll include a link to the website of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in the show notes. A quote from their website: “With humble beginnings as a simple, two-room family home hosting travelers along the Old Boston Post Road in 1716, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is now the oldest inn operating in the United States.”

According to podcast Ben Franklin’s World, a podcast about early American history, if you walked into this inn back in 1716, you wouldn’t have a seen a sign saying saying Wayside Inn. That’s because this inn had the name of Howe’s Inn and Tavern when it first opened its doors. Longfellow loved this place. He was inspired by the summer residents he met at Howe’s Tavern, as well as the Howes themselves. In fact, Innkeeper Lyman Howe was the inspiration for The Landlord’s Tale, a work of Longfellow’s better known by the title The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

By the end of the 19th century, the connection with the inn and Longfellow was strong enough for the new owner to capitalize on this fact, so he did, by renaming the inn ‘Longfellow’s Wayside Inn’. The new owner also had the desire to operate the inn as a mecca for artists and a “retreat for literary pilgrims”. I know I’m feeling inspired just thinking about a stay at this historic spot on over 100 acres of oak tree covered New England. Maybe it’s time for a road trip!

— Fact Cabinet —

That sound means we’re opening up our fact cabinet. As my loyal listeners know, this Mary-Poppin’s-Carpet-Bag-esque cabinet seems to have an endless supply of items, some of which always end up pertaining to the topic of the podcast. Here’s a perfect example, my latest acquisition from the dark web, a jar of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beard. I know. I’m weird. There is some evidence that points to the idea that Longfellow grew out his iconic beard because he was trying to hide the burns that he had all over his face. Wanna know the story of how Longfellow ended up with burns all over his face and hands?

Francis “Fanny” Longfellow, with whom Henry had six children, died in a fire. One source tells us that she burst into flames, perhaps from standing too close to the flame of a candle. Another source states that she was sealing up envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with sealing wax and a candle and stepped a bit too close to the flame, igniting her dress. I’m sure certain details are lost to history. We do know that Henry attempted to extinguish the flames himself in an attempt to save her life, but sadly Fanny died the next morning. His burns sustained were severe, according to information from the National Park Service website for the Longfellow House in Cambridge, which is now a National Historic Site. She and Henry appear to have cared quite a bit about each other. Their relationship has been described as being ‘rooted in intellectual pursuits’. Fanny acted as Henry’s scribe as he struggled with his eyesight. Fanny knew she was Henry’s muse, and once wrote about herself in a letter to Henry’s mother, “I am a pretty active spur upon his Pegasus”. She was the inspiration behind Henry’s only love poem, The Evening Star, from 1845.

Her death came in 1861; a tragedy that most definitely affected his work. For a number of years he focused on the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy rather than composing any poetry of his own. This same National Park Service page has included an unpublished sonnet, The Cross of Snow, written by Henry 18 years after the death of Fanny. This is only known poem that he wrote about the tragedy. I’d like to read it to you all now because it’s fantastic:

Major props to the National Park Service for also mentioning the deep roots in queer history connected with the Longfellows, and this house in Cambridge in particular, and for also making a commitment to telling a side of history that for many years was buried. From the NPS LGBTQ Heritage site: “For many years, the rich histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans have been erased through punishing laws and general prejudice”. The full name of this preserved site in Cambridge is the Longfellow House Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site. You see, the walls of this house was also once the home of the first president of the United States, George Washington.

So why is the Longfellow House in Cambridge a landmark in Queer History? Evidence points us to a deep queer history stretching back to Washington. A lot of attention has been brought to this house in the past couple of years partly due to the efforts of awareness campaigns from the National Park Service as well as the recent release of a research article by Temple University’s Hilary Iris Lowe, entitled The Queerest House in Cambridge. The discussion has been around historical documents found in the archives of Longfellow’s house, for example, the left-behind letters of Samuel Longfellow, Henry’s youngest brother, in which it appears Samuel struggled to make peace with his sexuality. I can only imagine, as it was not a time when men felt comfortable being open about their homosexuality. Aside from Samuel is another Longfellow, Alice, preservationist and daughter of Fanny and Henry who grew up in an environment that encouraged atypical ideas of gender, and had long intimate relationships with other women. You can learn more about the fascinating Alice Longfellow on the website,, where I’ll include a video called Sapphic Victorians and the Queerness of Alice Longfellow on the same page as the show notes. This only scratches the surface of queer history at the Longfellow house. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, the grandson of Henry, was himself a preservationist, author, teacher, lauded for his understanding of Russian drama, and at least one source I found tells us, seems to have been openly gay, advocating for younger men navigating the social circles of Harvard and Cambridge.

Quite a queer history indeed. And the debate around the potential queerness of George Washington can spark a very long discussion that would be almost as complex as sexuality itself, as its wrapped up in the very nature of what we consider to be American identity. So let’s perhaps save that for another podcast episode shall we? I think instead for now I’m going to end with some information from another great National Park Service page I’ll link to in the show notes from an article call An Era of Romantic Friendships: Sumner, Longfellow, and Howe:  ( )

What are your thoughts? Record your voice for the podcast and I’ll put it on the show, or leave a message on the website. Look for Get the Word on whatever social media platform you use.

Write in to the podcast: . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is We’d love to hear from you.


"Really enjoyed this podcast! A teaching method that actually takes a journey. Brilliant!!!!!" - Unknown - Get the Word! - Thank you Unknown!! Much love.

Show notes:


Wayside Inn:

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:


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