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I've been web searching to try and figure out the origin of the phrase "float the idea" and I can't seem to find anything. My guess is that it probably is an allusion to ship building where you attempt to see whether a ship floats right after building it, but that's purely conjecture.

The Online Etymological Dictionary says merely [one assumes of the metaphorical 'start / put forward' sense]

  • float (v.) ...

Meaning ... of "set (something) afloat" is from 1778 (originally of financial operations).

Is anything known about this phrase?

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  • Always check a dictionary. Merriam Webster: 4 a : to put forth for acceptance// float a proposal
    – Lambie
    Oct 27, 2023 at 15:33
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    @Lambie OP is aware of this sense; it's the sub-etymology that's being asked about. Oct 27, 2023 at 15:44
  • On a hunch, I've been tracking down the origins of "shoot down an idea". It's older and seems to have developed fairly naturally from high level military strategy discussions to it's current metaphor divorced from any shooting environment. I suspect that ideas are floated in order to be shot down, or at least shot at.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 28, 2023 at 19:41
  • Shoot down an idea, 1955, regarding the UN - books.google.com/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 28, 2023 at 19:41

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As with many expressions, the origin is complex and multifaceted. "To float an idea" became popular in the 1970s, with no apparent nautical connection, but there are occasional older uses. The modern usage relates to older meanings of "float" meaning to literally hang suspended, to hover, spread, circulate, drift, and hence to put out among people or put before the mind. But in a few cases there is a more specific metaphor of floating a boat, meaning to get it moving and stop it being aground or stuck.

According to website PlainEnglish.com "To float an idea means to suggest something unusual or unexpected, with the objective of determining whether people like the idea or not. When you float an idea, you want to see what happens to it."

The OED (“float, v.”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, September 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/6686153284) doesn't have "float an/the idea" but has similar meanings. There is a much older sense often used of ideas, visions, etc, dated to 1690 "to move or hover dimly before the eye or in the mind; also of a rumour, etc.: to pass from mouth to mouth." Example from John Locke in 1690: "Though they pass there continually; yet like floating Visions, they make not deep Impressions enough, to leave in the Mind clear and distinct, lasting Ideas." From Disraeli in 1826: "Here floated the latest anecdote of Bolivar". It lists the closely related meaning "to float a rumour", with "float" meaning "to give currency to; to circulate", dated to 1883 in St James Gazette.

We find in the 19th century "float an idea" meaning to let it drift or seep in to the mind in quotes like "Words, like water, may float an idea into a mind", The Sunday School Teacher, Volume 8, 1882. But while similar, this is distinct.

"Float an/the idea" with the modern meaning is quite recent. Google Books returns a hit for "float the idea" from 1973 from the (still-topical) The Impact of the October Middle East War: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia... by the House of Congress Foreign Affairs Committee: "I think we might float the idea. I don't think it has been floated before". Here it seems to mean to put out for consideration or to put up before the mind, which is amply justified by the earlier meanings of "float".

However, despite its recent popularity there are a few older examples which seem to use more literally the metaphor of getting an idea off the bottom and into some kind of use or action. Hence, "The statement is too shallow to float an idea, and we do not propose to launch one onto it...". (Six Letters to the Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart: Being an Attempt to Expose the Dangerous Tendency of the Theory of Rent Advocated by Mr. Ricardo and by the Writers of His School, Thomas Charles Banfield, 1843) This means that the statement may provide some support for a more general idea but isn't itself enough to justify or prove the idea. This is slightly different to the modern meaning of "put out for consideration or debate".

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