or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Shipping News

At work today, one of the things I was framing was a (I'm guessing) 1940s reproduction of an old Currier and Ives engraving entitled "Clipper Ship 'Nightingale'". Here it is. Nice, isn't it?

Just below the title of the print, there's a subtitle (which you can read if you click on the image to enlarge it):

Getting Under Weigh Off The Battery, New York

and I thought, "Under weigh? That can't be right!"

And then I had second thoughts, because, of course, the nautical term "weigh anchor" (which we'll get to in a minute) comes to mind in that context. Nonetheless, I was quite sure that "under weigh" was simply wrong, and that "underway" was what was meant.

And so it is. Quite a few people have written "under weigh", particularly in a nautical context, and every one of them has been wrong, because the phrase really was and still is "under way" or "underway". (Why "under" instead of, say, "on", as in "on our way"? It appears to be the case that we simply took the word "underway" entire from the Dutch, who use "onderweg" for the same purpose, and reworked it to sound more like English.) Of course, "under weigh" has been used so often that descriptivists would say it's as good as right, but that doesn't make it so, because the sense of "way" as a trip or voyage is still present in "underway", but absent in "under weigh", which is meaningless when you know the etymology of the word.

Now, what about the weight of that anchor? As it turns out, there are two different weighs in English, one older than the other, and the older, less specific sense is the one we apply to anchors. Both major senses of "weigh" come from Indo-European "wegh-", "to go" or "to transport, to move, to carry". The anchor sense comes from the "move" meaning of "wegh-"; to weigh anchor is to move it from the water up into the ship, nothing more. To weigh anything else--to put it on a literal or metaphorical scale and judge it in some way--is a later refinement of the "carry" sense; you carry something in a scale.

"Wegh-" has a great many offspring, some of them rather surprising. Let's have a go at that tomorrow.


Post a Comment

<< Home