The idiom "a drop in the ocean" means that what is being offered or what is being given is so tiny in comparison to what is needed that it lacks significance. The phrase can also mean that what is being described is very small or insignificant in comparison to the whole. It can be used to refer to an action taken to solve a problem that is insignificant in comparison to what must be done in order for the problem to be resolved.
The phrase has its origins in the Old Testament of the Bible. In Isaiah 40:15 in the King James Version of the Bible, the scripture states, "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket and are counted as the small dust of the balance." The New International Version of the Bible translates Isaiah 40:15 as, "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust." It is believed that this Bible verse is the origin of the phrase a drop in the bucket.
A drop in the bucket, still an idiom used in common English, is likely the origin of the phrase a drop in the ocean. It is thought that speakers changed the phrase over time to describe something as even more insignificant. As the King James Version of the Bible became well read, a drop in the bucket entered common language. It is believed that the phrase's evolution to a drop in the ocean occurred in the 17th century. The first known written reference of the actual phrase a drop in the ocean was printed in a weekly newspaper in 1802 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
An idiom primarily used in Britain, a drop in the ocean is used in English in other countries, including the United States. The phrase a drop in the bucket is still the more commonly used idiom to express insignificance in the U.S. A drop in the ocean shares its Biblical origins with many phrases still commonly used in the English language. Among them are "my brother's keeper" and "eat, drink and be merry." Most of these phrases, or their adaptations from the original scriptures, probably entered common language after the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611.