In Reply to: Falling off the face of the earth posted by RRC on October 03, 2008 at 13:14:
: : : : : : : : What is the origin and meaning of the phrase "falling off the face of the earth"?
: : : : : : : A guess. Some people used to think the world was flat, a plane, and that a ship could literally sail to the edge and fall off. (
: : : : : : : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth ) So the phrase is used when someone hasn't been seen for a while -- has dropped out of sight.
: : : : : : That's a bit of a myth. No one has ever (a few of the the very strange 'Flat Earth Society' members aside)really believed the earth is flat. In the 4th Century BC Aristotle was drawing the earth as a sphere for example.
: : : : : : And anyone who has ever been on a ship would know that the world is not flat.
: : : : : : DFG
: : : : : It is a myth that all people in the Middle Ages believed the Earth was flat, but "no one" and "ever" is an incredible overstatement.
: : : : The Wikipedia article covers all of the above.
: : : Would it be fruitful to start with "face of the earth" as a set phrase? I notice that it appears 33 times in the KJV translation of the Bible (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/kjv/kjv-idx?type=simple&format=Long&q1=face+of+the+earth&restrict=All&size=First+100). That makes "face of the earth" a rather venerable (1611?) way to say "everywhere known to man."
: : : To me, "falling off" would follow pretty naturally, especially if the "flat Earth" myth were generally known (even if not widely believed).
: : My thought was that it was a joking reference to the flat earth theory.
: Ask any school child - "Today, teacher told us everyone was afraid Columbus would fall off edge of the earth." How is the world resting on an elephant's back if there isn't a flat side on the bottom? If it was completely round round, it would roll off. ;-)
I like the idea of trying to figure out how and elephant could support the earth, but in understanding the original phrase, "falling off the face of the earth," I don't believe it is at all necessary to suppose an actual belief in a flat earth. The "face of the earth" is, as has been pointed out, an ancient metaphor. So falling off of it is just extending the metaphor, without any more literal belief in this metaphor implied than in any other. As someone else has pointed out, the phrase is jocular, and the joke is the notion of a flat earth or any other kind from which one could fall off.
I do wonder, though, about all those suggestions I've read that some ancient Greek sailors thought that out beyond the Pillars of Hercules their ships might just fall off the earth or some such. I know, of course, that there were some ships that ventured beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, although I don't know what became of them.