Non-Microspeak: Boiling the ocean

Some time ago, MSN Careers listed Boil the ocean as a workplace phrase you should learn. Thankfully, the phrase (meaning "to attempt something impossibly ambitious") is not currently in wide use in Microspeak. However, a friend of mine who works in another industry tells me that it is not only very much alive in his line of work, it became corrupted as it was imported.

My friend's industry involves companies from around the world, and although the working language for meetings is English, most of the participants are not native speakers of the language. He suspects that the phrase boil the ocean was introduced into the collective consciousness without a formal definition, and the company representatives at the meeting missed out on the impossible part of the definition, interpreting it instead as merely meaning to attempt something ambitious.

As a result, at their meetings, you will hear people say things like "Let's try not to boil more than one ocean."

Comments (34)
  1. PlexMan says:

    Burn the land and boil the sea

    You can’t take the sky from me

  2. Karellen says:

    @PlexMan – you deserve a star for that one.

  3. kog999 says:

    @Karellen – Agreed definitely star worthy

  4. Tom says:

    I heard a phrase the other day while watching a race on TV.  One of the drivers wrecked out, and the British commentator was describing what happened in a replay.  After the suspension broke and the car was clearly off the track, the commentator said "And then he drove all the way to the scene of the accident."

  5. collinsauve says:

    @PlexMan : Thank you for that :D

  6. Robin Williams says:

    @Tom – was it Murray Walker by any chance?  He’s famous for such things.

  7. Tom says:

    @Robin Williams: It was the BBC broadcast of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.  It was the first time I watched the BBC feed, so I’m not exactly sure who was commentating.  I thought it was a great race and a great broadcast — those guys did it like a soccer match, so the play-by-play was exciting.

  8. Jonathan says:

    I heard the expression 10 years ago, in an article by Joel Spolsky:

  9. Mark says:

    That would be Martin Brundle commentating, that’s one of his sayings.

  10. Sarah says:

    ‘Boil the ocean’ is frequently used at Microsoft in the UK…one of my favourites!

  11. Don Reba says:

    One more comment in appreciation of PlexMan’s quote.

  12. Dorri says:

    Pretty sure this came from the novel Ringworld by Larry Niven, in which they actually boiled an ocean.

  13. Olivier says:

    If you are fully using ZFS, you’ll probably boil the oceans:

  14. Roastbeef says:

    @Dorri: Can’t remember where I read this, but I seem to remember this originated during WWII when some particularly dense admiral suggested something to quell the German U-Boats and his staff member, being totally sarcastic, suggested instead boiling the ocean.

  15. I’ve heard this phrase repeatedly over the last few years.  I’ve always assumed that there’s a strong negative connotation as in in boiling the oceans you’re going to kill all life in them also.

  16. mikeb says:

    There are a fair number of Internet attributions of this phrase (or at least popularizing it) to Will Rogers. The oldest one that I could find is from 1967 (,67.htm):

    > This is reminiscent of Will Rogers’s suggested solution to the submarine menace during the first world war. He suggested that they boil the ocean. When asked how this could be done, he indignantly replied: “You don’t expect me to supply all the details, do you?” <<

    I suspect the use of the phrase probably predates Will Roger’s quip, but the crappy coffee in the lunchroom is calling me so I may never know for sure…

  17. Pete says:

    Ringworld is the only source I will accept on this.


  18. Iván says:

    In my experience, it’s seldom used as a positive thing, and much more commonly used as described in the MSN Careers article. Often, I’ve seen it used to deride problems that are defined in an overly general or complex manner (typically, excessively abstracted), which detracts from the solvability of the problem.

    "Making programming easy for non-programmers" is a "boil the ocean" problem.

    "Letting kids create their own games without programming" is not.

  19. a random passerby says:

    At my place of work, we use the phrase right below "boil the ocean": "drink the kool-aid".

    It’s always a negative thing, implying that we bought into our own hype too much and torpedoed our product as a result.

    Sadly, this pretty much happens to some extent on every product we make. It’s astonishingly easy to do in our industry.

  20. Cooney says:

    > I’ve heard this phrase repeatedly over the last few years.  I’ve always assumed that there’s a strong negative connotation as in in boiling the oceans you’re going to kill all life in them also.

    If you actually manage to boil the ocean, the world is pretty much toast. Of course it’s negative. Assuming we don’t kill ourselves off or regress in the next 100 years, we’ll probably be able to do it eventually.

  21. Absotively says:

    Michael Grier: You have it backwards.  If we kill all the life in the oceans (such as whales), they’ll be boiled.

  22. NT says:

    I think there’s a subtlety that you’re missing to the "boil the ocean" phrase.  I’ve heard it used to describe a problem which, in theory, actually has a solution (maybe even a straightforward one), but the solution involves an impossible amount of some resource like time, memory or CPU cycles.

    Just saying it’s "impossibly ambitious" could just mean it’s impossible for *you* to do it, whereas I think the phrase is supposed to mean it’s impossible for it to be done no matter who you are.

    This distinction might be why it’s not as common within Microsoft as some other places.  If someone at my tiny company says "that’s a boil-the-ocean problem" it means nobody, not even Microsoft, could do it, whereas when Microsoft wants to say nobody, not even Microsoft, could do it, they just say "that’s too ambitious." :)

  23. Jolyon Smith says:

    Surely "boiling the ocean" means something that *is* possible, but that the energy required to be expended is simply not feasible/practical/justified and the end result not worth the effort.

    i.e. it’s something we could do if we put our minds to it, but not something we should be putting our minds to just for sake of getting it done.

    At least that’s the way I shall be using it now that I’ve heard it.


    (At first I thought it was going to be a reference to setting the oceans on fire, which isn’t only possible but actually quite easy and increasingly likely to happen:

    The "setting on fire" aspect being a reference to a documentary I saw some YEARS ago on this subject, alluding to the fact that drilling rigs that disturb methane deposits on the ocean floor can often accidentally ignite the released methane when it reaches the surface, giving the impression that the ocean itself is on fire – a visually striking phenomenon)

  24. Worf says:

    What? I thought boiling the oceans was what happened when the Covenant glass a planet.

    (Microsoft’s universe… more details in Eric Nylund’s The Fall of Reach)

  25. GrumpyYoungMan says:

    >"boiling the ocean" means something that *is* possible

    Using the most powerful mechanism for releasing energy known to man, a back of the envelope calculation suggests that it would take ~1.3×10^14 megatons to raise the temperature of the world’s oceans by 100 °C.  So, no, boiling the occeans is not currently possible.

    (The calculation is more straightforward if you use kilocalories instead of joules since the former is defined by it’s effect on a volume of water.)

  26. Jolyon Smith says:

    Um, yeah Grumpy… but that’s my point… it’s not impossible, it’s just a question of figuring out and building a device to deliver the required amount of energy.

    Definitely *possible*, just not necessarily practicable with current technology in a sensible timeframe (and definitely not practical).

    But if it were impossible then there would be no imaginable way of doing it.  Period.

    Boiling an ocean is definitely possible, just not necessarily do-able.

    A subtle distinction to be sure, but valid never-the-less (similar to the distinction between "practical" and "practicable"; in that case "yeah we can do it but it would be awkward" vs "nope, can’t be done").

  27. keith says:

    Grumpy, you also assume one atmosphere of pressure.  If I bring the Spaceballs Mega-Maid, and bring atmospheric pressure down to, say, 20 Torr, then the oceans will boil without additional heat.  

  28. dave says:

    Hah, I have always interpreted ‘boil the ocean’ in the sense it was used when we actually boiled part of the ocean.

    Take 10 litres of ocean, boil into down to 50 cc or so, and then assay the result.  Probably 10th-grade chemistry class.

    So: by extension: boiling the (entire) ocean is possible in principle, but would take so longer and present so many sub-problems that we don’t in fact have the means to do it.

  29. James Schend says:

    Worf: To be pedantic, Halo belongs to Bungie, not Microsoft. (They split away from Microsoft again about a year ago.)

    And when they glass a planet the deep ocean is probably the only place that would have any possibility of surviving, since the heat/plasma is applied by starships above.

  30. Søren says:

    I have always thought of as meaning *a lot of things must happen at the same time*. So if you want to add a new feature that will require changing all software at the same time, would be boiling the ocean.

    So it’s not necessarily impossible, just a huge amount of energy must be expended in a short time.

  31. James says:

    Tom, driving all the way probably meant actively working to keep control of the car instead of letting it do what it would do naturally as a result of the damage.

  32. Dan says:

    Boiling the ocean is easy in SimEarth.

  33. Worf says:

    @James Schend: Actually, Halo *is* a Microsoft property – it was owned by Bungie, but Microsoft kept it when spun Bungie back out. For a little while, Microsoft Game Studios didn’t have a coherent plan, but last year, they set up 343 Industries specifically to manage the Halo franchise. Which includes books, comics/graphic novels, toys, etc, as well as games. Including what everyone deems "Halo for PS3" (Halo Legends on Blu-Ray).

    (Halo Wars was an afterthought – Ensemble had an RTS for the Xbox, and it was Microsoft who suggested putting it in the Halo universe).

    And glassing the planet involves a lot of heat – the coastlines will boil off first, so the deepest parts eventually boil away.

  34. "Let’s not try to boil the ocean" is a phrase that’s alive and well on my team.

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