Saturday, December 31, 2005

under the weather

This phrase meaning ill dates to 1827 (OED2). The phrase probably derives from the idea that the weather can affect your mood and health.

Isil claims that it is a clipped form of the nautical phrase under the weather bow, a reference to the side of the ship's bow that is taking the brunt of rough seas, and is a reference to seasickness.

Partridge, refers to a British/Australian nautical use of the phrase to mean drunk. This usage is from the original Americanism. Isil may have confused the two senses.
--Wordorigins.org


  • Literally, we're under the threat of a rainstorm pushing towards Southern California.
  • Idiomatically, I've got a bad cold.
  • Unfortunately, no one in our house is getting drunk tonight, though if we did it would be from Feuerzangenbowle.Thanks to Stefan for teaching me about this German tradition as well as the Shirley Temple equivalent, kinderpunsch.

  • 4 Comments:

    Blogger Col. Dr. said...

    The phrase has nautical origins, and refers to those who have gone mad at sea, and require confinement in transit.

    Insanity is historically persecuted by silence. The mid-18th-early-19th-century world still largely believed that mental diseases were caused by demonic possession, and to superstitious sailors, few things would be as daunting as the fear of becoming "possessed" at sea.

    We now know that most at-sea manifestations of mental illnesses were caused by dietary deprivations. In particular, the long-term deprivation of iodine caused untold cases of hypothyroidism, a condition which can mimic schizophrenia.

    Other conditions, particularly the effects of prolonged isolation and constant maritime dangers probably added to the natural incidence rate of what we now recognise as physical conditions with mental effect.

    The ultra-macho atmosphere of the British Navy, which until actual space flight was the world's "Space Shuttle" program (competing with the novelty of railroads), relied heavily on maintaining its staunch image. Looking weak in the enemy's eyes was strongly discouraged, so it is easy to see how mentally ill sailors would be euphemistically referred to as being "under the weather bow."

    A subtle note distinguishing physically sick sailors from the mentally ill is in the fact that those suffering from diseases of the body were kept "alee," and not "aweather" whenever possible.

    Chauvinistic opinions of the mentally ill have always existed, and to large degree exist today. As recently as the 1980s, traumatic stress was denounced as cowardice, with several hundred Allied sufferers being executed during the First World War.

    Thus, the dig, that mentally ill sailors were shirking their duties and deserved to lie aweather, exists today in the shortened "under the weather," which traditionally was used to describe batty Aunt Rose to explain why she won't be over for dinner. Your hysterical Aunt Becky has the vapors, so she'll be gone too.

    The traditional definition of the vapors describe what we today classify as anxiety disorders. Since most panic attacks are caused by hyperventilation must be incidental, as gasses were not generally understood to exist as such prior to the 1860s.

    It is highly possible that the contributor of the phrase's origin was Dr. William Chester Minor. Born in Ceylon to American missionary parents, Dr. Minor was sent, by steamship, back to the United States in his youth, for "unclean" thoughts toward all the half-naked locals.

    After becoming a doctor, W.C. Minor served in the Civil War as a surgeon, which itself must have left its psychological mark.

    For some mysterious reason, after serving with the Army, Dr. Minor took a liking to prostitutes, which was considered aberrant behaviour, but was by no means uncommon among any of his peers or colleagues. Being open about his proclivities is probably what garnered him the negative attention which prompted the Army to punish him by making him live in Florida.

    Such horror being too much, he chose instead to move into one of London's worst slums.

    Taking a new liking to the terribly ugly London prostitutes, which is really saying a lot about Florida if he preferred them, he descended into paranoia and what would, shortly before his death, be diagnosed as schizophrenia by the as-yet undeveloped science of psychiatry.

    Dr. Minor shot a man, and was confined to an insane asylum. Here, in the quirky, murky history of the Oxford Dictionary, we may see why an obvious implied blank exists as to the exact context of this phrase.

    It could well be that, unable to cope with being so abnormal as to be shut away from all society, that Dr. Minor's self-loathing prevented him from breaking the conspiracy of silence.

    The editors of the Oxford would well have understood what all the winking and nudging was about, but since mental illness is still largely treated with a stuffy formality, they probably had little trouble sleeping by laying the phrase off on the Yanks, thus absolving them, and their nation, of having to explain what they did with all those men who went insane while months away from home.

    Thus, instead of today's student knowing that someone who is "under the weather," originally meant they'd been removed from the general population for reasons of mental hygiene, they're fed some slop that the phrase is a Ben Franklin original, as American as the Red, White, and Blue (which was French, but who wants to admit to that these days?)

    5:27 PM  
    Blogger Col. Dr. said...

    Jeepers, please excuse the choppy grammar. Trying to celebrate New Years and be poignant at the same time.

    5:29 PM  
    Blogger Jessica said...

    Corrections welcome. Sloppy grammar excused.

    What a pleasant surprise to run into Dr. Minor again. Happy New Year!

    6:12 PM  
    Blogger James said...

    Interesting post and comments, but as a central Texan, I must ask, what is this 'weather' you speak of?

    Happy New Year.

    6:19 AM  

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