Still a line from "The Marvelous Ms. Maisel"

The character said:

And Stan... who has a voice that bored a thousand ships into sinking themselves.

I was totally lost about this phrase.

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is a clever pun that plays on the idea of "the face that launched a thousand ships". This phrase is a reference to the launching of a fleet of ships to rescue Helen of Troy, a woman of the most astounding beauty who eloped/was abducted by Paris. The launching of the ships to bring her back sparked the start of the Trojan war (the Iliad). It is such a poetic phrase that it is in common usage in English to describe someone of exceptional beauty ("she is beautiful enough to launch a thousand ships") . The phrase "has a voice that bored a thousand ships into sinking themselves" plays with this idea to suggest that Stan's voice has a level of boredom that is as exceptional as Helen of Troy is beautiful, and does it in a clever way. Rather than launching a thousand ships to rescue the most beautiful woman ever, this guys voice is so dull that a thousand captains would rather sink their own ships than listen to it.

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    A related joke is the dictionary definition "Millihelen: Unit of beauty sufficient to launch one ship". – user3445853 Dec 10 at 10:49
  • More on point: A more normal danger to captains are the equally mythical "sirens" [incomprehensibly now used for loud, horrible alarms], whose beautiful singing causes men to completely lose their heads and sink their ships by steering towards them, as they sing from rocky outlets. So the author cleverly combines both ideas in one sentences. – user3445853 Dec 10 at 10:53

It is a reference to the Iliad, in which a lady leaves her husband but she was so pretty that he was willing to launch a thousand ships full of Greek soldiers to get her back.

So you get the saying "beautiful enough to launch a thousand ships" to mean "very pretty." And now there is apparently a bloke who is so boring his voice will sink a thousand ships, that is, he is very boring.

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    Helen of Troy (the lady) was supposedly kidnapped rather than leaving her husband. The war is likely to have been about access to trade routes rather than the slight if Homer is read carefully enough! – MD-Tech Dec 6 at 18:06
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    Helen was very pretty and had many suitors, and her father (or at least, her mother's husband) got to choose the lucky guy. However, he feared the consequences of disappointing them, so he made them swear an oath to defend the marriage of whoever he chose. He chose Menelaus. She later got abducted by Paris, Menelaus obviously wanted her back and because of their previously sworn oaths he asked the other suitors to back him up, and they had 1000 ships between them. – James Hollis Dec 6 at 20:33
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    @jamesHollis yeah this is the abridged version. – Borgh Dec 7 at 8:14
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    It doesn't seem accurate to say this is a reference to the Iliad. It is a general reference to the story that the Iliad is a part of, but I don't think there's a quote in the actual text of the Iliad itself referring to a thousand ships. – Nathan Hughes Dec 7 at 19:56
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    A beauty that can launch a thousand ships clearly leads to the helen unit of measurement. In some version of this scale, negative amounts of helens correspond to ugliness capable of sinking ships. In source: P. Lockwood noted that the unit had been independently proposed by Edgar J. Westbury and extended by the pair to negative values, where −1 milli-Helen was the amount of ugliness required to sink a battleship. – Jeppe Stig Nielsen Dec 8 at 20:53

While the underlying reference, as Quuxplusone stated, is to the Iliad, the specific expression is a play on a famous line from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

The context is that the main character, Faust, has made a deal with the devil and gained special powers, including the ability to talk with the spirits of the dead. Here, he has summoned the spirit of Helen of Troy. He asks if this is really the spirit of a woman so beautiful that her abduction motivated her husband to launch a huge naval invasion to get her back.

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    This is accurate, and interesting. As an answer, it would be improved if it more directly addressed the specific question asked. – sethrin Dec 7 at 6:33
  • There's no evidence presented that Doctor Faustus has anything to do with this, rather than being an independent reference to the Iliad. – Acccumulation Dec 7 at 19:10
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    This seems like the most relevant answer because it points to the quote that you need to know to parse the phrase in the question. There doesn't seem to be a comparable quote in the Iliad resembling this. – Nathan Hughes Dec 7 at 19:59

It means that his voice was so boring that a thousand ships decided to sink themselves. Compare it with the expression to talk someone into doing something.

talk into (phrasal verb) If you talk a person into doing something they do not want to do, especially something wrong or stupid, you persuade them to do it.

It's basically the same idea.

(answer transcribed from comment)

As well as what the other answers have said, the sentence is a pun. The term "bore" can mean 'drill a hole in something', or can mean 'induce boredom', so the sentence has two meanings. The second is that Stan's voice makes holes in ships and causes them to sink.

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    I disagree with this answer, I think that this is too far fetched to be the intended meaning even if the pun works out. – Borgh Dec 7 at 13:58
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    The voice doesn’t sink the ships; the ships sink themselves in the statement, so while this is interesting I think the parallel between “face that launched a thousand ships” and “voice that sank a thousand ships” is more compelling. – ColleenV Dec 7 at 15:16
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    The phrase "[...] into sinking themselves" suggests that they chose to sank; that is, they have agency in the decision. If there were a pun with "boring a hole", I'd expect a choice of wording that doesn't give agency to the ships. – Ethan Kaminski Dec 8 at 13:56

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