I understand the most of this Madness' song but those two words together (off and down in floats off down the river Nile) get me confused -- I do not know whether the oarsman's boat got stuck on the banks of the river Nile or just the opposite.

As he [the oarsman of the Nile boat] reaches his last half mile
The oar snaps in his hand
Before he reaches dry land
But the sound doesn't deafen his smile
Just pokes at wet sand
With an oar in his hand
Floats off down the river Nile
Floats off down the river Nile

What does that verse mean?


  • You should quote the relevant lyrics in your question.
    – user3169
    Jun 3, 2018 at 19:46
  • 1
    The words are together but in separate phrases. (floats off) (down the river Nile)
    – user3169
    Jun 3, 2018 at 20:17
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    Off after a verb of motion means very much the same as away. Down the river is in contrast to up the river, and means going in the direction of the flow.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 3, 2018 at 20:19

2 Answers 2


Just the opposite. Instead of pulling into the shore to take on additional passengers, because the oar broke, the boat floated past and continued to go down the River Nile. But who can tell for how long, as it was only half-afloat to begin with. The phrase "float off" implies that something is drifting without control, eg if a boat's tether breaks it may float off down the river.


Floats off down the river Nile

Off and down are both adverbs which modify the main verb (floats) and each other. I'm guessing the implied subject is he / the oarsman.

Off is being used as an adverb under the second definition:

So as to be removed or separated.

Other example sentences using the same definition:

He whipped off his coat = to take away

A section of the runway had been cordoned off = to be separated from

Down is being used as an adverb intensifying, or adding detail to, the other adverb, as to specify it's location (Where is he off to? Down there.). It falls under the first definition:

Towards or in a lower place or position, especially to or on the ground or another surface.

For example:

‘the sun started to go down

‘he put his glass down

‘he swung the axe to chop down the tree’

So floats off down the river nile can be construed as:

he [the oarsman of the Nile boat], floats off (describing how it floats = is he floating off or on the river Nile?) down (where is he going? = down the river nile) the river Nile.

Why? Because as the lyrics say in the second line:

The oar [snapped] in his hand

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    – ColleenV
    Jun 5, 2018 at 12:54

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