I was reflecting on Lewis Caroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter", considering the line:

And why the sea is boiling hot--


To talk of many things: Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--

Of cabbages--and kings--

And why the sea is boiling hot--

And whether pigs have wings

It made me wonder if this phrase has a meaning and origin related to the modern expression of "boiling the ocean".

Several sources say that the modern expression may have originated from Will Rogers during WWI, while other offer that Mark Twain may be the source. Neither being assertive in these positions.

When I consider Caroll's usage, it is paired with a portion of the poem that makes allusions to foolishness. "pigs have wings" and 'pigs flying' are commonly used to refer to impossible (and thus foolish) ideas. It can be argued that "cabbages and kings" draws a comparison between two things that are whimsically irreconcilable.

So then can we understand that a "boiling ocean" was a concept in some level of usage as far back as that period in time? Or do we have a predominance of consideration that Caroll's absurdist style plucked these from the æther?

tl;dr: Do we have any way of knowing if Caroll's use of these words may have influenced the modern expression?

edit: it does seem that we are seeing evidence that a "boiling ocean" was a mythological concept of some antiquity, and usages seem to be attributed to things that are beyond the hands of humans.

  • Boiling the ocean/sea meaning impossible is rather different to the sea being boiling hot (after all, we say that of a summer's day). Of course we can't rule out an influence on whoever coined the phrase, or even a common earlier source. As for quotes attributed to Mark Twain, be very sceptical unless you can find them in his published writing. He's one of those very quotable people whose names are taken in vain to lend authority to a made-up aphorism. – Chris H Feb 2 '18 at 7:41
  • Carroll at least is unambiguous about the sea being boiling hot. This is relevant as a boiling sea can also refer to a sea that's churning like a vigorously-boiling pot of water. We also use boil in that sense in whitewater kayaking, where water can be forced upwards. People seem quite creative when it comes to terms for the impossible. I can think of several colourful phrases with different nuances (here, shear effort, but consider herding cats or nailing jelly to a wall) – Chris H Feb 2 '18 at 7:47
  • @ChrisH I thought that seas were said to be roiling, not boiling. – New Alexandria Feb 2 '18 at 13:20
  • both. Poe certainly used boil in "A Descent into the Melström": Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion—heaving, boiling, hissing—gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents – Chris H Feb 2 '18 at 13:40

Two sources (for boil the sea) predate Carroll's 1871 quote. The first is unambiguously about heat:

If he utters a tone of dissent I will boil the sea dry

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, Volume 32 (1840) p. 61 "The Dragon King's Daughter" (short story).

The second is less clear, in that it could be metaphorical:

Hail to our master! He whose sway,
Hell’s terrified realms obey.
In the fell ingredients throw!9
Now our charm has wrought its woe!
Thunders burst and boil the sea!
Dance about, with witches glee!
Let our timbrels shake the air!
Our delight is man’s despair!

The Mountain Sylph (an opera John Barnett, libretto by Thomas James Thackeray, 1834)

The figurative "boiling" is quite common, and old, which doesn't help track down a more literal meaning, but may have influenced later origins of a phrase meant literally. For example Edgar Allan Poe "A descent into the Maelström" (1841):

Here the vast bed of the waters... burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion—heaving, boiling

Alexander Pope's 1726 translation of Homer's Odyssey also uses this metaphorical sense:

Beneath, Charybdis holds her boist'rous reign
'Midst roaring whirlpools, and absorbs the main;
Thrice in her gulfs the boiling seas subside


There's no telling with certainty whither Carroll may have wandered, but the contemporary sense of 'boiling an ocean', that is, "to undertake an impossible task or project or to make a task or project unnecessarily difficult" has no apparent connection to the much-anticipated Walrus and Carpenter's talk about "why the sea is boiling hot".

Oceans, or at least parts of them, after all, are routinely made boiling hot. Making oceans boil is neither "impossible" nor especially "difficult". Volcanoes and underwater geothermal vents naturally boil the ocean; nuclear reactors and industrial flumes boil the ocean artificially.

A search for the origin of the contemporary sense of "boiling an ocean" did not produce anything definitive; however, the earliest mention of that sense of the phrase that I found, from 1986, attributed it to Will Rogers:

Balanced budget: When the seas boil
 It all reminded him, he said, of what comedian Will Rogers replied when he was asked during World War I what he would do about the threat of German submarines in the North Atlantic.
 His response was that he would set the oceans of the world to boiling and thereby cook anybody who happened to be in a submarine in the coean," said DeConcini.
 "But how do you get the oceans to boil?" Rogers was asked.
 The comedian replied that he had absolutely no idea, but that it would certainly solve the problem if they could be made to do so, the senator recounted.
 "Well," said DeConcini, "we did not boil the oceans, the sun does not rise in the West, and members of Congress will not bring about balanced budgets if all we have to rely on is their best efforts. ... We cannot boil oceans and we cannot balance budgets unless we have a different legal framework in which to legislate."

The Marshall News Messenger, Marshall, Texas, 1 Apr 1986 (paywalled; emphasis mine).

The question of why the sea is boiling hot, however, may have an answer or two. Those answers, in turn, may have provoked Carroll to bring the question up. The most likely account, in my estimation, comes from northern European mythologies. While Carroll almost certainly would have been familiar with these mythologies, in one or more forms, a Finnish version summarized in 1898 in an article in The Westminster Review titled "The History of the Forms and Migrations of the Signs of the Cross and the Su-astika" proved most readily accessible to me:

...the cult of the alligator. This was originally in Finn mythology the sun-lizard, the child of the mother goddess Kesari-tar, the daughter (tar) of the kettle (kesari), who was the goddess of the burning mountain containing the heat generated in the lower earth by the revolutions of the Northern Pole, the invisible fire-drill of heaven turned by the stars of the Great Bear, and not by the ape-god of Southern mythology. She was made pregnant1 by the froth of the sea heated to boiling-point; and the father god, who made the fire-drill to revolve and boil the ocean water, was Il-marinen, the Northern Smith, the Finn form of the German Wieland the smith.

  1. Abercromby, "Magic Songs of the Finns", Folk-Lore, vol. i pp. 381-2.

Although that particular account was published in 1898, twenty-seven years after the publication of "The Walrus and the Carpenter", such striking details of the substance of the northern European mythologies had probably not escaped Carroll's notice.

Another possibility, and one that especially might have provoked a desire for the discussion of a Walrus and a Carpenter (although the latter was so-named by the choice of Tenniel from the other options of a butterfly and a baronet), springs from Christ's description of Judgement Day. As described in a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cahill, published in 1882 in A Treasury of Irish Eloquence,

It is He Himself that will, on the terrible day, boil the oceans with His angry breath....

This source, again, post-dates the publication of "The Walrus and the Carpenter", and would at most suggest a general rather than a specific origin of the Walrus's proposed topic for discussion.

Sources antedating the publication of the poem also surface in a thorough search but, as with the later sources, only suggest what might have been rather than establishing what was the origin of the Walrus's proposal. For example, a quasi-mythological passage from correspondence addressing "Liquid Fuel" in the 24 Apr 1868 Journal of the Society of Arts might have been a specific source:

We, with our limited means, cannot "set the Thames on fire;" but Nature, with her unlimited means and her huge central furnace, may convert water, on a large scale, into its constituent gases...nothing disappears in one form but it comes forth again in another. We have lost the dodo, but we have the duck still, and the elephant replaces the megatherium. The large animals grow fewer in number, but the smaller races multiply. That serpent that stopped the army of Regulus in Africa is no more, and the sea serpent is problematic; but the Cachalot whale still bursts in ships' sides in his ire, with his huge head, and volcanoes break forth and disappear, and, if later speculators do not err, boil the ocean into the Gulf Stream, and render northern countries habitable by the human race....

The gist of these considerations is that, unless and until Carroll's missing diaries and diary pages turn up and explain the mystery, we cannot know whence sprang the topic suggested by the Walrus. By the same token, the inspiration for Will Roger's putative suggestion for surfacing subs may remain unknown, and along with it any direct or indirect connection the latter may share with Carroll's bon mot.

  • Volcanoes make a little bit of the ocean boiling hot, but the quote clearly describes making the entire ocean boiling hot. Either way it's beyond human possibility – Chris H Feb 4 '18 at 13:12
  • @ChrisH, I guess you're allowed to make whatever, and however many extravagantly inaccurate claims you want in comments, but really comments should be reserved for suggestions for improvement, etc. The Walrus, and the poor oysters, "after all", are most concerned with the temperature of the "parts of" ocean they're in or are about to be in. – JEL Feb 4 '18 at 21:58
  • I should have been clearer but I meant your quote about cooking submariners: he would set the oceans of the world to boiling and thereby cook anybody who happened to be in a submarine in the ocean, also mentioned in the question, and a better fit to the extreme lengths that the phrase usually refers to. – Chris H Feb 4 '18 at 22:22

I can't find an older reference but the BBC's Blue Planet series has filmed a phenomenon called "the boiling sea" (the sea appearing to 'boil' as hundreds of tuna stir it up in a feeding frenzy) which they describe as "the stuff of legends". If it's the stuff of legends in the 21st century I think it's a fair bet that it's been the stuff of legends for a lot longer that. Although I can't find the passages I'm pretty sure that I've read descriptions of the sea 'boiling' in a similar way (around cetaceans, submarines, crashing waves and even sinking ships) many times in the past and mostly in older books.

We can be fairly confident that Carroll would have been familiar with the phrase in this figurative sense but, of course, the poem is deliberate nonsense along the same lines as Feste the jester telling Malvolio that "the clerestories toward the south-north are as lustrous as ebony" in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

It's just about possible that the Carroll poem influenced the idiom but the origins of the idiom are so unclear that we are unlikely ever to know where it came from. I personally think that it might have come from some non-English tradition (Japanese or Chinese perhaps) and been adopted into English.

  • 2
    OED has boiling sea from Wycliffe's Bible translation of 1382, "Isa. lvii. 21 As the boilinge se, that resten mai not." However, "boiling the sea" appears to mean "impossibly difficult". – Andrew Leach Feb 2 '18 at 6:53
  • The "clerestories" line by Malvolio is not nonense, it is sardonic, though we certainly all agree that Caroll was quite filial to the banner of absurdism. – New Alexandria Feb 2 '18 at 13:33

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