The Grammarphobia Blog

A way with words

Q: My friends and I had an ugly fight about the phrase “under way,” as in, “The campaign is under way.” What is the origin of the term? Please answer swiftly as I expect reprisals from my new enemies.

A: The phrase originated in the 18th century as a nautical term to describe a vessel that has begun moving through the water, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first published reference in the OED, from A Voyage to the South-seas (1743), by John Bulkeley and John Cummins: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.”

All of the 18th century citations in the OED use the phrase in a nautical sense, but by the early 19th century the term was being used more generally to mean in progress or in the course of.

The first citation for this sense is from Byron’s satirical poem The Vision of Judgment (1822): “And Michael rose ere he could get a word / Of all his founder’d verses under way.”

Fifteen years later, the historian Thomas Carlyle used the term loosely in The French Revolution: “A courier is, this night, getting under way for Necker” (Jacques Necker was a banker).

Getting back to the seafaring origins of the phrase, it turns out that the word “way” has been used as a nautical term for the progress of a ship or boat through the water since the mid-1600s.

The first published citation in the OED for this usage is from Sir William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1663): “Those who withstand The Tide of Flood … Fall back when they in vain would onward row: We strength and way preserve by lying still.”

And here’s a citation from Samuel Sturmy in a 1669 reference for mariners: “If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship’s way, you fall a Stern.”

This sense of the word “way,” according to the OED, may have been derived from “under way,” an expression adapted from the Dutch word onderweg (also onderwegen), meaning on the way or under way.

The chronology doesn’t seem right, however, since published citations for “under way” are all more recent than those for “way” in the nautical sense. But “under way” might have been in use for years without making it into print.

By the way (so to speak!), “under way” has often been written “under weigh,” a misspelling that the OED attributes to an “erroneous association” with the phrase “to weigh anchor.”

The confusion is understandable, since “to weigh anchor” is to heave up the anchor before sailing. And now it’s time for me to weigh anchor and get under way with another question from my in-box.

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