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Miss the boat

“Miss the boat” is an English idiom that’s used to refer to someone’s missed opportunity.

The phrase is thought to have originated in the 18th century in British sailing slang and has since been used to refer to a wide array of situations. It’s common to hear this idiom in every kind of conversation, from those between family members and friends and even those in more formal business and academic settings. 

Miss the boat meaning and origin


Meaning of “Miss the boat”

“Miss the boat” is used to describe someone missing out on an opportunity.

They “miss the boat,” which was their only chance to get in on something they wanted to take advantage of, progress in their career, make money in a new and interesting way, or get on trend with whatever is popular. These, along with many other examples, are possible instances in which someone might use “miss the boat.” 

The word “boat” is quite effective as a metaphor for something that once gone is truly lost. If one imagines the phrase with its literal definition, it’s easy to connect arriving late for a scheduled boat journey to missing out on an opportunity that isn’t going to come again. If the boat has already left the harbor, it’s going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to catch it. 



“Miss the boat” is thought to have originated in the 18th century when it was used literally to describe someone missing out on a boat/ship journey.

Someone who “missed the boat” in the 18th century arrived too late to get on a scheduled voyage. At the time, in the years that followed, and to some extent today, the phrase was used interchangeably with “that ship has sailed.”

The phrase was popularized over the following decades and centuries and is today used much more liberally to refer to a wide array of missed opportunities.


When to Use “Miss the boat”

It’s possible to use “miss the boat” in a wide range of situations that are far more varied than its original literal interpretation.

Today, one might use the phrase to describe any missed opportunity, ranging from one of a romantic nature to one of an economic. If someone doesn’t invest in the right stock at the right time, before it increases in value, then they’ve “missed the boat” on that opportunity. There’s no turning back time to try again. Or, in another situation, one might use the phrase to inform someone that they’ve missed their chance to apologize or redeem themselves for a mistake they’ve made.  


Example Sentences

  • Hurry up, you don’t want to miss the boat on this. 
  • Everyone invested before I did and I think I missed the boat.
  • Did I really miss the boat? Is there no more time for me to make it up to you?
  • She told him that he had to leave her alone. He totally missed the boat with her.
  • It was only after I realized I’d missed the boat that I saw how important this all was. 


Why Do Writers Use “Miss the boat?” 

Writers use “miss the boat” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use it in everyday conversations.

The phrase is quite short and easily incorporated into a dialogue between two characters. It’s easy to imagine one character using this phrase when describing a situation to a secondary character. Two friends in a novel or short story might have a conversation about the fact that they’ve both “missed the boat” on a particular opportunity and the writer can be confident that readers are going to understand with the idiom means. 

This idiom is a great example of one that’s still quite commonly used despite the fact that it’s become something of a cliche. 


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