How do you describe a person that floats in sea water, face up, without moving?

FYI, in Italian we say "fare il morto", "to play dead", because as soon as you move a muscle you end up underwater...

  • I think all live human beings naturally float, but exactly how "stable" a person is lying on their back in sea water depends partly on how salty the water is (almost anyone can lie on their back and read a newspaper in the Dead Sea), but mainly on how fat they are (fat floats, bones sink). I don't think there's an English term for this specific meaning in context - "play possum" means "pretend to be dead", but that doesn't work here. Nor does "lie back and think of England". Dec 31, 2021 at 12:20
  • In English (at least US English), we call floating face down the "dead man's float"!
    – stangdon
    Dec 31, 2021 at 14:38
  • @stangdon Very similar to the Italian idiom... Of course Britons are different, as you noted below. Why don't you post your comment as an answer? I'd be very happy to upvote...
    – gboffi
    Dec 31, 2021 at 22:00

1 Answer 1


As a child, we called it 'being a starfish' or 'starfishing' (I am a native British English speaker). Note that 'starfishing' is also used to describe making the same outstretched position in other contexts, not just in water. Similarly, we also referred to floating face down with your knees raised to your chest as 'mushrooming'. I recall a swimming instructor used this term.

This news item gives official advice on how to float in this position for survival, and I note that it does not include any specific term for it, so perhaps there are only informal terms for it.

  • Those terms might be specifically British English or informal local terms. I've never heard either of them in the US.
    – stangdon
    Dec 31, 2021 at 14:35
  • @stangdon I did mention that I am British, but some cursory Googling shows me that 'starfishing' is used in the US too. I can see dozens of articles about it as a position in bed (sometimes sexual, sometimes not). So maybe you've just not heard it. If someone said to you in a swimming pool "stretch out like a starfish", would you figure out what they meant?
    – Astralbee
    Dec 31, 2021 at 14:39

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