Getting under weigh at the coach office

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Hans Schantz mentioned that Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) was the most challenging book he’d read, vocabulary-wise, because of the specialized nautical jargon.

I decided to revisit the book and was immediately struck by a bit a quasi-nautical jargon in the first paragraph:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western coast of North America. As she was to get under weigh early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.

Under weigh?

What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us — among many other nautical expressions — the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. Weigh here is the same word as the one for finding out how heavy an object is. Both it and the anchor sense go back to the Old English verb, which could mean “raise up”. The link between the senses is the act of raising an object on scales.

It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens (“There were the bad odours of the town, and the rain and the refuse in the kennels, and the faint lamps slung across the road, and the huge Diligence, and its mountain of luggage, and its six grey horses with their tails tied up, getting under weigh at the coach office.” — Little Dorrit).

It was still common as recently as the 1930s (“He felt her gaze upon him, all the same, as he stood with his back to her attending to the business of getting under weigh.” — The Happy Return by C S Forester, 1937) but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.


  1. Graham says:

    On the other end of that spectrum, when I was a kid I thought the US Navy song was saying “Anchors away!”

    Since that sounded like an order to drop the anchor or an indication that it had been dropped, I couldn’t figure out why the song narrative seemed to have the ship heading out on its journey. Sounded like it had already arrived and halted.

    So confused.

  2. Kirk says:

    This is another one of those moments where I feel like I’ve somehow slipped into an alternate world, all unknowingly.

    I honestly thought there was a usage out there for weighing flags and sails, and that the proper term was “under weigh”, referring to the sails being hoisted. I go looking, and there’s no such thing. I swear to God, I clearly remember reading that and having been taught that in schools, but I can find no such reference in anything available online.

    Last time this happened to me, it felt like I went to bed one night in a world were the proper spelling was “vacuam”, and woke up in another where it was “vacuum”. Seems like a minor issue, but I’m someone who has an instinctual grasp on spelling words, usually, with only a few blind spots that catch me up. One day, I’m spelling it “vacuam”, and remember seeing it that way all over the place, and the next… I’m apparently nuts. It’s really “vacuum”.

    Anyone know the way to the door back to where I came from…? Asking for a friend…

  3. Isegoria says:

    Kirk, you need to watch “Wordplay,” from the 1985 Twilight Zone series.

  4. Kirk says:

    Oh, thankyousoverymuch for making my nightmares come to life… I swear to God, I’m about ready to go down and have myself checked out for a stroke, or something…

    Things like this really throw you, because it’s like having a bedrock assumption pulled out from beneath.

  5. Graham says:

    I admit I always thought it was linked to weigh anchor, which at least gave it an origin. Disconnected from that, the spelling makes no sense, right enough.

    I’m not going to click on that TZ link just yet. Please someone tell me if I’m right in assuming that’s the one where the poor benighted middle class father comes home from work and slowly he ceases to speak the same language as his family. Notably, the word “lunch” is early replaced by the word “dinosaur”.

    If so, that is the one episode of that show that has sporadically haunted my dreams since it was aired 34 years ago, and one of only a few I really remember, though I didn’t remember the title. It’s relatively trivial when it’s stuff like the meaning of “weigh” at stake. It’s when the episode and its concluding narration are considered in light of weightier, dare I say Gramscian issues, that one is concerned.

    For similar hints of the future, I recommend also

    Those two episodes of different series kind of blurred in my head until now.

  6. Graham says:

    Never mind.

    Searching for that other episode, I couldn’t help noticing the description for Wordplay. That’s the one all right.

  7. Graham says:

    Curiously, just this afternoon a colleague troubled my repose by asking for my take on the modern use of gender. He seems to me more liberal minded than me in general but more befuddled by the pace of cultural manipulation. I imagine he has not yet reached the level of willingness I have to just watch the course of events with a side of relish.

  8. Isegoria says:

    I literally saw that Twilight Zone episode once, presumably when it first aired, and it stuck with me to this day.

    It was written by Rockne S. O’Bannon:

    O’Bannon made his writing debut selling spec material to NBC’s Amazing Stories (1985) and CBS’s The Twilight Zone (1985), but first garnered critical attention for his film Alien Nation (1988) and its subsequent spinoff television show. His next notable achievement was his original series seaQuest DSV (1993) which ran for three seasons. O’Bannon’s most critically acclaimed success was the space epic Farscape on the Sci-Fi Channel (1999–2003) which ran for four seasons and spun off into a mini-series, and comic book series.

  9. Dennis says:

    If you enjoy looking for the origin of such phrases, you can find many more to research in “A Sea of Words”, which provides definitions of a range of terms used in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels. Some are sea terms, others medical, and still others terms from ordinary life, all from the period of the Nepoleonic wars. The problem presented to new readers by those novels are much the same as “Two Years Before the Mast”, only more so (as they might have said back then).

    I was surprised to find the number of words and phrases in common use on land in those times that are absent from modern usage.

  10. Lucklucky says:

    Curiously, just this afternoon a colleague troubled my repose by asking for my take on the modern use of gender. He seems to me more liberal minded than me in general but more befuddled by the pace of cultural manipulation. I imagine he has not yet reached the level of willingness I have to just watch the course of events with a side of relish.

    It is about time that Anglo-Saxons should stop calling “liberals” people that are Marxists and want to control everything of other people lives.

  11. Graham says:

    I tend to make a distinction between liberal, meaning either classical liberal, or some variation of centre left liberalism as I knew it 30 years ago in a North American context, and progressive by which I mean all the centre-left to left Marxist-inflected stuff that has almost totally replaced it in the last generation, and now dominates everyone’s thought patterns.

    In this case, though, I meant to describe the colleague specifically, and his general demeanour compared to my own.

    He strikes me as a vaguely conservative libertarian type with Alex Keaton qualities, and a fairly high level of disdain for the Marxist stuff, weakened by his focus on conservative issues a generation old, by an inclination to social liberalism, and a lack of noticing the prevalence of Marxist thinking and speaking. It’s a very common political and personality type right now, and a problem.

    He also seems more liberal minded than me in the sense of having a spirit of openness and generosity in public matters that is not mine, not any more. I limit those traits to my interpersonal relations.

    That and, as I said, he is probably not willing to take pleasure in, let alone joyfully anticipate, the immolation of progressive ‘civilization’.

    But on the larger issue of how to characterize the modern left, I agree entirely.

  12. CVLR says:


    I have to say, I’ve disliked that label, “Marxist”, since I discovered that Boomercons and libertarians are apt to so characterize everything even vaguely not slobbering on the corporate knob. I found it especially interesting to read the same (source) Marxist literature before and after I’d successfully purged myself of all latent libertardianism. Experientially, it was hardly even the same thing. This leads me to believe that most identified instances of Marxism are not actually Marxism, though what they are exactly I’m afraid I cannot say.

    Perhaps it’s the tendency to describe things in ideological terms that’s the problem. The simple fact is that ideology is for the mindless cattle. Interests make the world go round… which is why there are interest groups. Who ever heard of an ideology group? — it’s absurd.

    If you’re wondering why there seems to be so much budding social totalitarianism afoot, then I dare say look to the global interests of the social engineers. With a deadline of 2030, they have bodily launched us into the throes of this transformation, which must take place. The world is not going to be the free societies that they were in the last century. We are now going into a totalitarian mode and the social engineers will be resented because of their leading role. But without that leading role and without that transformation, the world will not survive.

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