Saturday, September 19, 2015

under way

This was another thing that came up through my book group's recent reading of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.. I wasn't the only member who was intrigued to see Dana write "under way" (or "underway") as "'under weigh". It sounded right. It sounded nautical. "Anchors aweigh!" and all that. So I decided to look a little further into it.

Great Tea Race of 1866

But it turns out that Dana had this wrong. The original expression actually is "under way". As World Wide Words tells it, the phrase begins in the Dutch onderweg, meaning 'on the way' and becomes 'under way' in English around 1740. It's specifically a nautical term and doesn't take on other non-nautical meanings till the next century. Wikipedia tells us that to be under way has a very specific definition when it comes to seafaring. The "way" in the phrase means that a vessel has enough water flowing past its rudder that it is possible to steer it. There can be legal ramifications to whether or not a vessel is under way. Things like whether a child does or does not need to be wearing a flotation devise. (I say, when they get on the boat, but that is not the legal reasoning.) A ship is under way if it is not  aground, at anchor, or made fast to a stationary object like a dock. The article also says that it is not underway if it is adrift, but this is a bit confusing, because in the next sentence it says it is under way, as opposed to "making way" if it is drifting, which basically means not being steered by anyone.

So if you happen to be drifting, put the life-jacket on. Just in case.

SMS Konig

Very soon after "under way" began to be used, the nautical term "weigh", as in "Anchors aweigh!", confused the spelling. You will find many famous and needless to say reputable writers using "under weigh", including Dickens, Thackeray, Herman Melville, and of course, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. For a while, it had become almost the standardized way of spelling the term. The well-educated, then, were perhaps more prone to make the error. (I noticed Dana also wrote "taut" as "taught" when talking about the ship's ropes, so maybe there was more of a stylistic preference for that added "gh" than there would be now.)

The German Frigate Augsburg and others, 1982

But a funny thing happened. Somewhere around the 1930s, "under way" started being fused into "underway", and the "under weigh" variant began to drop off. World Wide Words posits that it was under the influence of other words with -way endings, and especially "anyway". I always like it when words drift, but its especially interesting to see one drift back, whether it is technically under way while in this drift or not.

"Boat Adrift" by Charles Napier Hemy


  1. Thank heaven no one is under whey. I have that Little Ms. Muffet curd phobia.

    During the staff meeting tomorrow I'll ponder the need for steering to be under way.

    Fun as always!

    1. Whey! I'd never even considered the far reaching consequences there!

      However, I think I'm going to weigh in on weigh in the not too distant future.