Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, anchor management..
Q: Hi AWC, I have a nautical question for you today.
A: Whatever floats your boat.
Q: I “sea” what you did there! Anyway, I was wondering about the phrase “anchor’s away” – I recently saw it written as “anchors aweigh” and now I’m a little confused about which is correct. Can you help?
A: Absolutely – and it’s a good one because as well as both sounding identical, they also COULD both make sense.
Q: I know right?
A: After all, you COULD argue that if you are throwing the anchor overboard, it would make sense to say “anchor’s away” – to alert the crew that the anchor is away from the ship.
Q: Yep. That’s what I’ve always assumed.
A: Well, you may be shocked to learn that not only is your SPELLING wrong, but also your MEANING.
Q: Whaaaaaa. Okay, I’m all at sea with this one.
A: The term “aweigh” came to English purely in a nautical sense back in the 1620s – and actually means to LIFT an anchor perpendicular, or straight up off the seafloor.
Q: Wait. So it’s not for lowering the anchor, but raising it?
A: That’s right! To “drop anchor” is simply what you’re looking for to come to a stop. Whereas to “weigh anchor” means to lift it – and “aweigh” was a further extension of that.
Q: How odd, I guess I always associated “weigh” with pressing down on something like scales, not lifting something up.
A: It’s an easy thing to mix up as in modern times, it is acceptable to talk about how much you “weigh” when you’re actually referring to your “weight” – the downward force or heaviness of something. However, back in the 14th century, to “weigh” originally meant to carry, lift or move. Because if you want to find the weight of something, what’s the easiest way to see how heavy it is?
Q: You lift it up!
A: Exactly! You lift or “weigh” it. By the way, the figurative concept of “weighing up” an idea – as in to consider or ponder – is equally old. In that case, you’re seeing if an idea or argument carries any weight. More recently, the specific term “weigh in” was first used for jockeys in the 1860s.
Q: And “aweigh” was just a case of putting an “a” in the front?
A: Basically yes. It simply created a useful adverb for the act of “weighing anchor” – and the term “anchors a-weigh!” became a common saying upon the seas. It was largely unknown to the general population until the 1906 US Navy song called Anchors Aweigh and later a 1945 musical film of the same name, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
Q: And I see that “anchors aweigh” has no apostrophe. Why not?
A: The term has typically been written as a plural. The simplest explanation is that large navy vessels have more than one anchor – so the call is for ALL of the anchors to be lifted, not just one.
Q: That makes sense. I suppose I had always imagined a single anchor. But then again, I thought it was being dropped, not raised.
A: True. But do you know the BIGGEST culprit in people assuming “aweigh” should be “away”?
Q: Apart from the fact that most people haven’t heard of the word “aweigh”?
A: Yes, apart from that.
Q: What is it?
A: “BOMBS AWAAAAAAAY!”
Q: OMG you’re right. If you’re dropping bombs, that’s exactly what you would say. Wait – don’t tell me that it should be “bombs aweigh” and we’re picking them up?
A: Haha no. The term “bombs away” is literally from dropping bombs aerially. The term itself is likely to have gained notoriety during the aerial warfare of World War II, however the first aerial bombs were actually dropped in 1911 during the Turkish-Italian conflict. Today, it is often said when ANYTHING (e.g. a water balloon) is dropped from a height – or even when a submarine launches a torpedo.
Q: Fascinating! So, to recap, “anchors aweigh” is the actual term – and unlike “bombs away”, it means to LIFT or “weigh” anchors, not drop them.
A: That’s it! Now go away.
Q: Don’t you mean “go aweigh”?
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