Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

AN SOS comes from Haslemere. `Can you do anything to kill it off before it spreads and it is too late?' asks Mr James Walsh.

I am sorry to say, Mr Walsh, that, as with ground elder, by the time you notice it, it is too late already.

The problem is: underway (sic). This may not sound too bad, but it has nettled Mr Walsh. We are in nautical waters here, always a perilous patch and a lee shore.

Way is either the progress of a ship, or its speed or its impetus. It can be freshened. In Sturmy's Mariner's Magazine (1669) it explains: `If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship's way, you fall a Stern.' Or, as we should write, it astern.

Under way means `having begun to move through the water'; the seafaring Dutch express it as onderweg (one word). Annoyingly, it is sometimes spelled under weigh, and has been for more than a century. In his Sailor's Word-Book (1867), Admiral William Smyth wrote: `Under way, a ship beginning to move under her canvas after her anchor is started. Some have written this under weigh, but improperly. A ship is under weigh when she has weighed her anchor. As soon as she gathers way she is under way. …

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