Q: We were wondering about “the coast is clear.” Smugglers? Invaders? As kids, we used it to mean “no adults around to say us nay.”
A: The expression dates from the seafaring days of the mid-1500s, when it literally meant the seashore is free of enemies. But the first written examples use the phrase metaphorically in much the same way you did as kids.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the literal usage refers to a seacoast being clear of “enemies who would dispute an attempt to land or embark.” When used figuratively in its various forms. it means “the way is open for an operation, event, etc.”
The earliest OED citation is from a pamphlet published in 1567 that warns the public against con men and tricksters. We’ll expand on the citation to provide context:
“Thus fedinge this old man with pleasaunt talke, vntyll they were one the toppe of the hyll, where these rufflares [rogues] mighte well beholde the coaste aboute them cleare. Quiclye stepes vnto this poore man, and taketh holde of his horse brydell, and leadeth him in to the wode, and demaundeth of him what and how much monye he had in his purse.” (From “A Caueat [Caveat] for Commen Cursetors,” by Thomas Harman. The obsolete noun “cursitor” meant a tramp or vagabond.)
We’ve found a couple of usages from the 1570s, including this one about the efforts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to secure the throne of England for her youngest son (King John):
“In the end winning al the nobilitie wholye vnto hir will, and seeing the coaste to be cleare on euery side.” (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshead, 1577.)
Our searches of historical databases turned up many other 16th-century uses of the phrase and its variants: “the coast is [or was] clear,” “if the coast be clear,” “no sooner cleered was the Coast,” “seeing the coast cleare,” and so on. And like those already cited, the majority have nothing to do with the sea.
Here, on the other hand, are a couple of the literal ones, referring to actual landings or embarkations:
“perceyuing [perceiving] the coaste cleare … they [the Corinthians] tooke seas forthwith.” (From an English version, published in 1579, of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. The reference is to the coast of ancient Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, Italy.)
“wee laded her [a ship] with all the speed we could, for as then the coast was cleare of Englishmen.” (Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into ye Easte & West Indies, a memoir published by the Dutch trader Jan Huygen van Linschoten in London in 1598. The coast here is that of the island of Terceira in the Azores.)
The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, in which “the coast is clear” is called “a proverbial expression” meaning “the danger is over, the enemies have marched off.”
Johnson provides two examples from literature: “seeing that the coast was cleare” (Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1580) and “when now the Coast was clear” (John Dryden, 1587). In both uses, the references are to spying, sneaking about, and slipping unseen from place to place, not to real seacoasts.
Though the phrase (along with its variations) has shown up in literal, seafaring uses since the 16th century, it has mostly appeared as a proverbial expression.
It seemed made to order for the Restoration comedies and amoral novels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their bawdy rakes and loose women on the lookout for a chance to behave badly.
This, for example, is from The Art of Cuckoldom, or, The Intrigues of the City-wives, published anonymously in 1697: “One Evening at the end of the Week, the Ladies Maid came to his Lodging from her Mistress, to tell him, That the morrow Morning following, the Coast would be clear, for her Husband was to be out the whole Forenoon: And therefore she desired his Company.”
Some uses, though, are more comic than licentious. We’ll conclude with this passage from a translation done around 1700 of Cervantes’s Don Quixote:
“Here Sancho got up without speaking a Word, laid his Finger on his Lips, and with his Body bent, crept cautiously round the Room, lifting up the Hangings, and peeping in every Hole and Corner: At last, finding the Coast clear, he return’d to his Seat. Now, quoth he, Madam Dutchess, since I find there’s no Body here but our-selves, you shall e’en hear, without Fear or Favour, the Truth of the Story.”