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The meaning and origin of the expression: Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic

Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic'?

To rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic is to occupy yourself with some trivial activity while ignoring something much more important.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic'?

The expression 'rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic', sometimes shortened to just 'rearranging the deckchairs'. clearly refers to the sinking of the great ship in 1912.

There's no evidence to suggest that anyone did waste their time in rearranging the Titanic's deckchairs while it was sinking - the expression is purely metaphorical. The ship's band however, who all eventually drowned, did continue to play on in an effort to calm the passengers.

The phrase 'rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic' - meaning and origin.Some deckchairs were thrown overboard to act as floatation aids for passengers already in the sea. While a noble gesture this had little effect as the icy water was quickly fatal.

As to the expression 'rearranging the deckchairs...' it isn't contemporary with the ship's sinking. The earliest example that I can find of it in print is from the Canadian newspaper The Times Colonist, December 1972:

"Best quip of the year was the remark about Trudeau's cabinet shuffle - 'like rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic'."

That suggests that the writer at least hadn't heard the phrase until that year. All the prior printed examples of 'rearranging the deck-chairs' refer to literal events involving real chairs.

It's a rather sad irony that the deckchairs, useless at the time, are now highly prized and, a hundred years after the tragedy, a single chair recovered from the sea was sold for £100,000.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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