Float an idea

To "float an idea" is to make an unusual suggestion and see how people react.

Today's story: Influence in the Arctic
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Float an idea

Donald Trump floated a crazy idea a few weeks ago: what if the United States bought Greenland from Denmark? He floated an idea. What does that mean? What does it mean to float an idea?

This is a fairly nuanced phrase that has a specific meaning. To float an idea means to suggest something unusual or unexpected, with the objective of determining whether people like the idea or not. When you float an idea, you want to see what happens to it. Will people immediately reject it? Will they love it? Will it make them think a little bit? Will they maybe come around after a while? You never know until you float the idea: you never know until you suggest it.

Let’s say you’re with friends and you suggest that you all go out for pizza in the evening. That’s not floating an idea. That’s just making a suggestion. Going out for pizza is not really unusual or surprising. And when you suggest that, you’re looking to make concrete plans. You’re not looking to gauge people’s reactions.

But if you suggested to your friend, “Hey, what if we went on vacation to Morocco next year?” That, at least for most of us, would be floating an idea. It’s definitely unusual. You suggest it in advance to see what people think. What would your friends or family say to that? Most people would probably say, “hmm, that’s interesting,” and then think about it for a while. There are a lot of great reasons to go to Morocco on vacation, but it’s definitely an unusual choice, at least for those of us in the Americas. Some people may really want to go: they may be up for an adventure. Others may not want to travel so far, or they might prefer something more relaxing or conventional. But if you float the idea with your friends or family, then you have time to see what they say before making plans.

Here in the US, some Democrats are floating the idea of Michelle Obama running for president against Donald Trump in 2020. They don’t think the people already running—all 20 of them—are strong enough to win. So they’re floating the idea that maybe the popular wife of an ex-president is their best option. For her part, she has said she has “zero interest” in running—but that’s what everyone says. We say that her supporters are floating the idea because it’s not clear if voters really see her as a candidate. Sure, she’s popular, but she’s popular in a personal sense. Presidential wives are typically considered above politics, so they don’t tend to be associated with negative feelings toward the office-holder. Would people want to see her run for office? Would they embrace her as an even-handed, gracious future president? Or would her support evaporate once she has to take a stand on the issues of the day? Who knows? Not me. That’s why some people are floating the idea. It’s an unusual, unexpected idea, and they’re raising it with the intention of seeing how people respond.

Here’s the thing about floating an idea. If people hate it, you can say, “hey, I didn’t mean anything by it: I was just throwing it out there to start a conversation.” But if people love it, you can take credit for having the idea.

Quote of the week

Time for our quote of the week. We talked about how silly it might be for an American president to buy a huge expanse of arctic land from another country. Ha, ha, ha! Before we laugh too loud, we should remember that in the year 1867, the United States did just that. Senator William H. Seward, representing President Andrew Johnson, bought the territory of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. At the time, critics joked about it, calling it Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden. Later, people called it “Seward’s folly.” Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor, called Alaska a “burden…not worth taking as a gift.” And that is our quote of the week. Alaska, today, is our biggest state and our connection to the Arctic, not to mention a major tourist attraction and a source of gold and minerals. Not bad for two cents per acre and certainly not a “burden…not worth taking as a gift.”


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the episode today. I wrote this one in Montreal, where I was visiting JR for a long weekend. We had a fun time there. We filled up on Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, poutine, Montreal bagels, and some other local delicacies. We also got a chance to see some sights—the weather was perfect.

Speaking of JR, you don’t hear his voice too much, but he’s a huge part of producing Plain English behind the scenes, and he’s working double duty with Plain English Plus+, too, editing videos, embedding code on the web site, double the audio production, and he also works on the Quizlet flash cards. That’s in addition to the Spanish translations and the web site.

And we have a new home page at Plain English, so you can see a couple of very handsome-looking cartoons of us on there. I told the cartoonist to draw JR as he is, and then draw me like 10 years younger and a lot better looking, and she did a great job. So check out our cartoon mugs on the new Plain English home page at PlainEnglish.com. We’ll be back on Thursday—see you then!

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Story: Influence in the Arctic