Pour Oil on Troubled Waters

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Pour Oil on Troubled Waters : Phrases


Attempt to calm a problematic situation.



The spillage of oil into the sea hasn't had a good press in recent years following the many ecological disasters caused by wrecked tankers discharging thousands of tons of crude oil into the world's oceans. In earlier times the pouring of modest quantities of oil into the sea was done deliberately in order to forestall rough seas. This phrase alludes to the actual calming effect of that oil has on wave action as it spreads over the surface of the sea. Very small quantities of oil can cover a surprisingly large area as it spreads into a layer just a few molecules in thickness. The surface tension of the oil layer has an effect similar to that of a thin skin.

The effect was known to the ancient Greeks. In 1762, Benjamin Franklin repeated an experiment first performed by Pliny, which he reported in A Letter from Benjamin Franklin to William Brownrigg, 1773:

"At length being at Clapham, where there is on the common a large pond which I observed one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil and dropped a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced; for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond where the waves were greatest; and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore. I then went to the windward side where they began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a teaspoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square which spread amazingly and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass."

The use of the phrase as a figure of speech, as opposed to a scientific experiment, began in the mid 19th century. This was first recorded by W. B. Baring in The Croker Papers, 1847:

"Lord G. [Bentinck]... spoke angrily. D'Israeli poured oil and calmed the waves."

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