The colloquial British-English phrase to push the boat out means to be lavish in one’s celebrations or spending.
An early occurrence of the phrase is to push a boat out for someone, and the meaning is to offer a drink to someone. This indicates that a boat might be metaphorical for a glass (i.e., a drink)—in the same manner as the noun vessel denotes both a ship or large boat and a container used to hold liquid. This early occurrence is from Gina of the Chinatown: A Reminiscence, published in Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown (London, 1916), a collection of short stories set in Limehouse (East London), by the English author Thomas Burke (1886-1945)—Gina has just performed a music-hall act:
The manager came to meet her.
“You glorious kid!”
Pertly she looked up at him.
“Yes, ain’t I? Going to push a boat out for me?”
“Push a boat out?”
“Yes; I’m dry after that. Mine’s a claret and soda.”
This explanation (i.e., a boat is metaphorical for a glass) is consistent with the use in Army and Navy slang of to push the boat out in the sense of to buy a round of drinks. This usage is first recorded in Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (London, 1925), by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons—to stand treat means to bear the expense of a treat; the phrase seems to be Army slang, since Fraser and Gibbons do not specify “(Navy)” (which they always do for Navy words and phrases):
Push the boat out, to: to stand treat.
The phrase was defined as follows in Royal Navalese: A Glossary of Forecastle and Quarterdeck Words and Phrases (London, 1946), by John Irving (John James Cawdell):
Push the boat out, to: a boatwork term used to imply paying for a “round of drinks.”
Writing about the Queen’s Hotel at Westcliff-on-Sea (Essex) in his column Some Notes from My Diary, published in The Sporting Times (London, England) of Saturday 2nd November 1929, ‘Lounger’ writes that he does not understand to push the boat out “in nautical language”—but it might not be the Navy phrase meaning to buy a round of drinks:
You will see there are many reasons why the Queen’s is a hub of Bohemia. Fred Haw we all know as of the Greyhound at Richmond before he migrated to Thames Estuary. Then you will invariably find within the portals Alf. Allen, Phil Sparling, Bobby Jackson, Commodore of the Westcliff Yacht Club, Tom Oxer, Charlie Thompson, Dave Robertson, sometimes called Jim, Mickey Vizer and a host of other bright lads of the village, all anxious and ready, in nautical language, “to push the boat out,” whatever that means.
The earliest occurrence of to push the boat out that I have found is from the West London Observer (London, England) of Friday 16th April 1915, in an article about the beanfeast that a certain Mr. G. W. Clarke, builder and decorator, gave to his employees:
At the conclusion of the repast, […] Mr. G. W. Clarke submitted the loyal toast which was duly honoured. […] Mr. Clarke then referred humourously [sic] to the fact that before he left home that evening he received separate instructions from his wife and daughters that [he] was to “push the boat out,” so he hoped that all present would not fail to take advantage of the opportunity to have a sail in it—(laughter)—and he [wanted? illegible] to express on their behalf the wish that all would enjoy themselves.
The second-earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from the Chichester Observer and West Sussex Recorder (Chichester, Sussex) of Wednesday 5th January 1916—R.A.O.B. is the initialism of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a fraternal organisation:
At the R.O.A.B. [sic] Lodge held on Thursday, at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, the new host, Mr. Robert Ernest Winn, was initiated into the mysteries of the order. In spite of the small attendance an enjoyable evening was spent. Brothers Bale and Sharman contributed to to [sic] the harmony, and the new worthy host “pushed the boat out.”
“I am informed that this precious friend of yours entered my grill-room at eight o’clock. He must have been completely intoxicated, though the head waiter tells me he noticed nothing at the time.”
Archie nodded approvingly.
“Dear old Squiffy was always like that. It’s a gift. However woozled he might be, it was impossible to detect it with the naked eye. I’ve seen the dear old chap many a time whiffled to the eyebrows, and looking as sober as a bishop. Soberer! When did it begin to dawn on the lads in the grill-room that the old egg had been pushing the boat out?”
“The head waiter,” said Mr. Brewster, with cold fury, “tells me that he got a hint of the man’s condition when he suddenly got up from his table and went the round of the room, pulling off all the table-cloths and breaking everything that was on them.”
I have discovered that to push the boat out has also been used in the sense of to pay a bribe in order to get a council house. On Friday 29th July 1921, the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser and The Uxbridge Gazette (Uxbridge, Middlesex, England) reported on a meeting of the Hayes Urban Council:
LADY WHO “PUSHED THE BOAT OUT.”
Referring to an allegation made at the last meeting, Mr. Rawlings enquired if any member of the Council who was connected with the Trades and Labour Council could now inform him if they had investigated the matter of the lady who had declared that she was asked to “push the boat out,” to the extent of £15 in order to get a house.
Mr. Leach replied that Mr Gunton and he saw the lady in question. She did make some statement about paying £15 to get into a house, but Mr. Gunton and he were satisfied that she was not referring in any way to the Council houses. She was referring to an application by a firm of house agents.
Mr. Rawlings: Thank you; I am quite satisfied.
Likewise, on Friday 9th March 1923, the Middlesex Advertiser and County Gazette (Uxbridge, Middlesex, England) reported that one of the Municipal Reform Association candidates in Hayes Urban Council election, Mr. I. Ellis, declared the following during a public meeting:
Why was he now distinctly in opposition to the Labour Party? The one thing above all others he demanded in municipal affairs, county affairs, or in Imperial politics, was honesty. (Applause.) They should not have anything in the nature of jobbery, and that was his main reason for his opposition to the Labour Party. […] The Council agreed to let the houses according to category, but, he said, they did not abide by this category. It had been freely mentioned that some people, in order to get a house, had—to use a colloquial term—“pushed the boat out.” He could not prove it, but God help the person if he found out who the boat had been pushed out by, or to.
1: From the account of a football game between Chesham First Eleven and Colchester Town at Chesham Sports Meadow, published in The Bucks Examiner (Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England) of Friday 26th November 1926:
At first we all thought that Chesham would have to “push the boat out,” for prior to the match, and following on a fine early morning, there were drenching downpours, and this November weeping had its effect upon the attendance and was reflected in the scarcity of spectators round the ropes. But after all the match was played in fairly dry overhead conditions.
2: From The Sporting Times (London, England) of Saturday 28th May 1927:
“Here’s a dam’ silly headline!” cried The Johnny, holding up the largest circulation for a penny. “It says here ‘Wives Cannot Be Beaten,’ an’ I know a little ginger-haired filly in one of Spiers and Pond’s railway buffets who’s got any of ’em whacked a mile!”
And after a profound silence, the crowd was unanimous that the last speaker should push the boat out.
3: From the column Contract Bridge, by W. H. Ricardo, published in the Western Mail and South Wales News (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Saturday 25th February 1939:
Your hand is still no better than when you opened on it, but your bid of three hearts cannot go wrong. If he [= your partner] gives you the preference in three spades you must now go four, and even if you are one or two down it is unlikely that you will be doubled in the contract; always provided that your partner is not pushing the boat out with his two no trump bid, when he ought to be saying two diamonds, two clubs, or one no trump only.
This advertisement for Lion Ale was published in The Lancashire Daily Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Friday 14th November 1947:
ANCIENT CUSTOMS PORTRAYED BY LION
Pushing the Boat out!
From whatever source the practice of “Pushing the Boat out” owes its origin it is certainly a welcome ceremony on any occasion when accompanied by Lion Ale.
. . . customers demand the finest quality hence the preference for – Lion Ale
Lion Brewery ● Blackburn
Restriction on output prevents our being able to meet the full demand