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I was wondering when and how the expression "Whatever floats your boat", meaning "What makes you happy; what stimulates you" (Wiktionary) came to be.

My research hasn't yielded anything which could be described as objective. Thus, I'll leave the urban dictionary and reddit assumptions aside. The ngram shows a steep rise starting in the early 80s. However, I was not able to pinpoint a definite source.

Can anyone shed light on this issue?

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  • Origin of “Whatever floats your boat” The more reliable sources are all on the first page. – user193059 Aug 30 '16 at 10:39
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    @Bluewoman - If you're referring to the links in Josh's answer, they're random collections of stuff which fail to give any sort of credible argument for the origin. But one entry in the Wordwizard link did suggest that the phrase is related to the use by "Reaganomics" of the expression (often attributed to Kennedy) of "A rising tide lifts all boats." That is at least a plausible origin (explains the sudden appearance of the expression concurrent with Reaganomics in the 80s), and it fits the metaphor of a floating boat. – Hot Licks Aug 30 '16 at 12:25
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    Good lord. Seriously, these answers. Have you ever been on a boat? It's fun and relaxing. It doesn't have to do with getting high or masturbating. There are experiences in life that are enjoyable that have nothing to do with sex and drugs. Sometimes things are just a pleasant experience. – Kit Z. Fox Aug 31 '16 at 13:16
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    Also, what do boats do? Does it rhyme? Nice! Print it! – Mitch Aug 31 '16 at 19:08
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    @Helmar If you look at what the sources say in the answers, you'll see that the OED's provenance suggests nothing to do with a clitoris or masturbation or drug reference. Additionally, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang also does not suggest that the phrase is sexual in nature (cf. "whatever turns you on" also cited in Josh's answer, which does say that the phrase is "usually sexual".). As for "floating" having to do with drugs, well. Boats float. That has nothing to do with drugs. Also, bear in mind that both of these answers are given by NNS who are unfamiliar with the phrase. – Kit Z. Fox Aug 31 '16 at 21:33
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+50

First off, the question of origin for such a colloquial phrase is a hard one to answer. Oral language is often only documented after it has been in use for some time, and anything before the first documented use is going to involve a lot of guesswork. This answer will give (a) predecessors that used similar "whatever verbs you/your thing" phrasing and (b) documented uses of "whatever floats your boat."

Whatever verbs you(r) noun

Fairly late in my research, I turned to the Corpus of Historical American English, since Google and academic search engines weren't giving me much to work with. After a couple of tries, I hit on a collocation search for "whatever _v" (_v is "verb") and "you*" (you, your, young - the asterisk is a wildcard). I found a lot of results.

Most results were questions: "whatever are you looking at?" and "whatever gave you that idea?" were two of many examples. There were also uses that functioned as objects of verbs: "He will pretend he is curing you of whatever ails you."

However, there were a few results that functioned quite like whatever floats your boat - uses that defer to someone else's preference. The first is quoted in full as it appears in the database, since the play may give more context for the usage. Then two more entries follow.

John Howard Payne, Richelieu, 1826.

Janet (aside to madam Dorival) Don't say a word, madam.

Mad. D. Madam Dorival (apart) Just Heaven! What shall I do!

Rich. Duke of Richlieu (artfully) Ah, I see! My company would be intrusive –

Dor. Dorival (to his wife) What ails you, my love? Is this mere absence of mind? Sure you'll welcome our friend Lamotte once more to our fireside.

Mad. D. Madam Dorival (forced to speak, but with her eyes cast down) You know -- whatever gives you pleasure -- (turns abruptly away, and says aside) -- My heart revolts from what I say!

Rich. Duke of Richlieu (with pretended frankness) Enough. I thank you for your invitation, and will not fail to be at supper.

Jan. Janet (aside) If he does, may it choke him!

Dor. Dorival That's kind, -- that's friendly now; and, to make the party more pleasant, I'll have a friend to meet you

Anna Maynard, The Award of Justice Or, Told in the Rockies A Pen Picture of the West, 1897

" All right, Mr. Blaisdell, that will be perfectly satisfactory, whatever suits you young fellows, suits me. "

Alice Skelsey, The Working Mother's Guide, 1970

Now you have all that time to laze around, catch up on projects, slip in a mini-trip or two without the children? whatever suits your purpose, just so it is a satisfying change of pace.

So the pattern of saying "whatever suits your purpose" or "whatever suits you" was already in English by the time the 1973 blues album Whatever Turns You On came out, let alone the other forms of "whatever turns you on" that show up in the 1970s.

Whatever floats your boat

Despite all my effort, the earliest source I can find for the usage is in the Oxford English Dictionary under "float, v.":

transitive. colloquial (originally U.S.). to float a person's boat: to interest or excite a person; to appeal to or suit a person. Esp. in whatever floats a person's boat.

1981 Sunday Herald (Chicago) 16 Aug. v. 7/4 Venus enters your house of travel on the 18th to stay until Sept. 12, so make getaway any way you can. Fly, drive, row or read. Whatever floats your boat.

1989 T. Parker Place called Bird xxi. 259 Whatever floats your boat, you've been doing it all your life.

1991 Blitz Sept. 103 Over the following four pages..is a composite of the men and women who float our boats and why.

1995
Midwest Living Apr. 51/1 (advt.) There are plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming, hiking, biking or whatever floats your boat.

2002 More! 3 Apr. 97/4 Small breasts don't float my boat.

In the OED entries, by the early 1990s the phrase has become more flexible: "who floats our boats and why" becomes possible. Green's Dictionary of Slang notes the extended usage "float one's boat in" as early as 1984, where it appeared in Connie Eble's chapbook Campus Slang:

1984 Eble Campus Sl. Sept. 3: float my boat – stimulate, excite: That don't float my boat.


Connecting the Dots

Given these instances of usage, there are three parts to this guess of an answer:

  1. "Whatever verbs you(r) noun" appeared in a few forms as a statement that defers to someone else's preference through the 19th and 20th centuries.

  2. "Whatever floats your boat" appeared as a specific instance of this linguistic meme. At the very least, the resemblance is there.

  3. The float / boat rhyme generalized in use far beyond its "whatever" origins. The similar meaning and preservation of the rhyme suggest that much.

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  • Nowadays, it's somewhat more dismissive WHAT-ev-er! – Tinfoil Hat Apr 22 '20 at 2:51
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The idiom, whatever floats your boat, could refer to the American slang, floating, meaning high or intoxicated by drugs. The term “whatever” also hints that the speaker is indifferent to the outcome or choice about to be made.

The following extract is from the website businessballs.com, run by Alan Chapman.

Although copied ad verbatim, I chose to break the following article into several paragraphs to facilitate the reader. Any emphasis in bold are mine.

whatever floats your boat - if it makes you happy/it's your decision/it's your choice (although I don't necessarily agree and I don't care anyway) - a relatively modern expression from the late 20th century with strangely little known origins.

Interestingly the phrase is used not only in the 2nd person (you/your) sense; "Whatever floats your boat" would also far more commonly be used in referring to the 3rd person (him/his/her/their) than "Whatever floats his boat" or Whatever floats her/their boat", which do not occur in common usage. Importantly the meaning also suggests bemusement or disagreement on the part of whoever makes the comment; rather like saying "it's not something I would do or choose myself, but if that's what you want then go ahead, just so long as you don't want my approval".

Unofficial references and opinions about the 'whatever floats your boat' cliche seem to agree the origins are American, but other than that we are left to speculate how the expression might have developed.

The 'whatever floats your boat' expression is a metaphor that alludes to the person being the boat, and the person's choice (of activity, option, particularly related to lifestyle) being what the boat sits on and supports it, or in a more mystical sense, whatever enables the boat to defy the downward pull of gravity. In this latter sense the word 'floats' is being applied to the boat rather than what it sits on.

Whether the phrase started from a single (but as yet unidentified) quote, or just 'grew' through general adoption, the clues to the root origins of the expression probably lie more than anything else in the sense that the person's choice is considered irresponsible or is not approved of, because this sense connects to other negative meanings of 'float' words used in slang. The word 'float' in this expression possibly draws upon meanings within other earlier slang uses of the word 'float', notably 'float around' meaning to to occupy oneself circulating among others without any particular purpose ('loaf around aimlessly' as Cassell puts it, perhaps derived from the same expression used in the Royal Air Force from the 1930s to describe the act of flying irresponsibly and aimlessly).

Also, significantly, 'floating' has since the 1950s been slang for being drunk or high on drugs. 'Floating one' refers to passing a dud cheque or entering into a debt with no means of repaying it (also originally from the armed forces, c.1930s according to Cassells). And a 'floater' has for some decades referred to someone who drifts aimlessly between jobs. While none of these usages provides precise origins for the 'floats your boat' expression, they do perhaps suggest why the word 'float' fits aptly with a central part of the expression's meaning, especially the references to drink and drugs, from which the word boat and the combination of float and boat would naturally have developed or been associated.

From The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang

2 drunk or marijuana-intoxicated US, 1938 “Man, when I see you floating, that'll be the day I quit. That'll be all. See old preacher Kipper floating!”
— Edwin Gilbert, The Hot and the Cool, 1953

TIME Monday, July 19, 1943

... the viper [client] says, “Gimme an ace” (meaning one reefer), “a deuce” (meaning two), or “a deck” (meaning a large number). The viper may then quietly “blast the weed” (smoke). Two or three long puffs usually suffice after a while to produce a light jag. The smoker is then said to be “high” or “floating.”

Further research

Here is a Google Ngram showing only the trend for floats your boat between 1920 and 2000

enter image description here

The earliest instance, recorded in 1933, has: the river rises once again and floats your boat away.

In the quagmire, I did not find any trace of the Oxford English Dictionary's citation, 1981, which Wordwizard listed. It's unlucky there is no digital version of that copy of the Sunday Herald (Chicago). However, the two earliest instances I did find online, with its current meaning, are dated 1985

  • Further, summary or statistical information is difficult to obtain in either English or Spanish.1' And if that floats your boat, you can have it for $30 a year (12 issues) paid to ...

  • They often seem to advance relativistlc [?] arguments — "what ever floats your boat" — or are nihilist in the sense of admitting to no knowable moral scheme. Their ethics seem to be more individuated. Of course the forgoing [sic] are exaggerated ...

Who "they" are, I do not know, but it is revealing that the idiom in its entirety appears in connection with no moral scheme, and ethics.

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    Fading into the distance, it's become quite misty all of a sudden!! Where are my anti-fog glasses? I limited myself to "reporting" what I found after scouring the web. What would have happened if this answer hadn't been supported, or supplied any links? – user193059 Aug 31 '16 at 16:42
  • @Josh61 and Bluewoman (think this way you both get pinged) I like both your answers which seem both reasonable. However, strangely enough it seems that both answers seem to disagree with a lot of people's gut feelings. I'll likely put up a bounty tomorrow, trying to draw in something more substantiated than gut feelings for the non-drug, non-sex faction. Although I'm curious if that even exists. – Helmar Aug 31 '16 at 20:50
  • As it says in the Chapman citation, "While none of these usages provides precise origins...they do perhaps suggest why the word 'float' fits aptly with a central part of the expression's meaning..." It's not about drug use or passing bad checks or being unemployed regularly. It's about being aimless and drifting through life with no fixed purpose. This meaning also fits with being "nihilist in the sense of admitting to no knowable moral scheme". A nihilist believes that life is (and therefore morals are) meaningless. In other words, a nihilist has no direction and lacks a moral scheme. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 26 '17 at 12:44
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The earliest evidence hints that figurative use of the phrase 'whatever floats your boat' originated among pleasure boaters in the USA. The (paywalled) Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida, p. 142) of 23 Sep 1979 offers a lengthy article about outfitting pleasure sailboats that ends with this advice (emphasis added):

You are the ultimate interior decorator for your boat. Remember there are no hard and fast rules, just go with whatever floats your boat.

The next use I found was in a puff piece concerning a father's translation of his children's slang, in The Newark Advocate (paywalled; Newark, Ohio, 02 Jul 1981, p. 4; emphasis added):

Spare me...suffer lady...whatever floats your boat...smush it...tough it out.

Translated: It can't be my turn to wash again (spare me)...yes it is (suffer lady)...at least your [sic] doing what you like (whatever floats your boat)...please shut up (smush it)...and from the youngest, that's great, I'm off tonight (tough it out).

The next three uses that turned up, in newspapers of the 12th (Illinois), 14th (California), and 15th (Indiana) of August, 1981, were instances of a syndicated horoscope for Leo as cited by OED from August 16th (Illinois) as the first attestation of the phrase:

Venus enters your house of travel on the 18th to stay until Sept. 12, so make getaway any way you can. Fly, drive, row or read. Whatever floats your boat.

On the 19th of September (1981), the phrase turns up again, this time in a horoscope for Virgo in The Herald (Crystal Lake, Illinois; paywalled):

... Relax with a romantic novel or a trashy movie. Whatever floats your boat.

The linguistic origins of the phrase are, of course, an earlier figurative sense of 'float', that is

float, v.
....
11.
....
b. To set afloat; figurative to buoy up, support.

OED

in metaphorical extension with 'boat', where 'boat' stands in for various forms of wellbeing: interest, excitement, suitability, happiness, etc.

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