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'Rocking the Boat' Upsets Everything


A couple swims beside a model boat in a lake in Ertingen, Germany, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
'Rocking the Boat' Upsets Everything
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Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this show we explore common expressions in American English.

Today we take our show on the water on a boat – or at least a make-believe one!

You have probably seen a boat before. Watching one move through the water can be really fun. On the water, boats move with a grace similar to that of a plane in the air.

If you are lucky, you may have even sailed in a boat. That experience -- to feel the wind and water droplets hitting your face, to be out in the open air -- is so much better than simply watching it from a distance.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline in cockpit of their sailboat, Victura at Hyannis Port, Mass., Aug. 7, 1960.
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline in cockpit of their sailboat, Victura at Hyannis Port, Mass., Aug. 7, 1960.

However, not everyone enjoys being in a boat. In fact, many people get sick from the rocking motion of a boat.

When boats are on calm water, the water moves it back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. This can cause many people to get seasick.

And that brings us to today's expression: rock the boat. This means to cause problems for other members of a group. When you rock the boat, you do or say something that causes change.

Now, we usually “rock the boat” in a negative way. Used this way, it means to cause trouble usually by changing something.

But you can also rock the boat in a positive way. Here’s how. Another meaning of “rock the boat” is to question the status quo, or the usual way of doing things. So, if a situation is no longer healthy or good – then making changes is a good thing!

For example, one job of the media is to sometimes rock the government’s boat. You know, shake things up a little.

The expression "rock the boat" has been used since the early 1900s. And it should come as no surprise that it comes from boating.

Imagine that you and a friend are at sea in a small boat. Suddenly you get up and start moving your weight from side to side. Naturally, the boat starts rocking .

Your rocking of the boat does not just affect you. It also affects your friend. She starts to feel seasick. But you don’t seem to care. You just keep on rocking the boat. And you rock it so hard, that it overturns. You and your friend end up in the water.

So, you were both fine in the boat before you started rocking it. Now with both of you in the water, the situation is worse.

It is worth noting that another expression means about the same thing and has a similar history: to make waves. The rocking of a boat is caused by waves in the water.

In life when you make waves, you change the usual way of doing things. Again, this can be good or bad.

So, that is where these expressions come from. Now, let’s hear how to use them.

Two co-workers, Marissa and Thomas, are heading into a meeting at the chocolate company.

A: That’s a big binder. What’s in it?

B: This binder has all my suggestions.

A: Suggestions … on what?

B: Suggestions on how to improve our overall chocolate products, customer service, production, delivery systems ... all without increasing our costs!

A: Wow! Those are a lot of suggestions. You know, now may not be the best time. The economy is tanking. And everyone here is really happy.

B: What are you saying?

A: Well, maybe now is not a good time to rock the boat. Things aren’t great. But they are pretty good.

B: That’s what I mean. Why be okay when you can be great? Now is a perfect time to rock the boat! Let’s challenge the status quo!

A: Look, Thomas. You’ve only been here a week. Why don’t you observe and learn a little more before you make waves?

B: You know, that’s good idea. I can always present my suggestions next week.

A: (sighs) Yes, I’m sure you will.

And that is all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time …I'm Anna Matteo!

Ibrahim Onafeko wrote this story with Anna Matteo. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is The Hues Corporation singing, "Rock the Boat."

How do you say "rock the boat" in your language? Let us know in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

grace – n. a way of moving that is smooth and attractive and that is not stiff or awkward

motion – n. an act or process of moving

seasick – n. feeling sick because of the movement of a boat or ship that you are traveling on

negative – adj. harmful or bad : not wanted

positive – adj. good or useful

status quo – n. the existing state of affairs

customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business

delivery – n. the act of taking something to a person or place

to tank – v. to suffer rapid decline, failure, or collapse

challenge – n. a difficult task or problem : something that is hard to do

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