Q&A: The origin of “under the weather”

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, we have a weather report…

Q: Hey AWC, I’ve been under the weather lately.

A: That’s more of a statement than a question.

Q: True, but I’m about to turn it into one. Where does this phrase come from? After all, technically if we’re on the ground, we’re all “under the weather”, right?

A: Haha, true. This phrase is of course a colloquial phrase that means to be unwell, or perhaps drunk. 

Q: How old is it?

A: It dates back to the early 1800s – when travelling the world involved a lot of boats.

Q: Just checking you heard me say “under the weather” not “under the water”, right?

A: We did. You see, those boats would naturally encounter some rough weather while out at sea. And what do you do if you’re on a boat in rough weather?

Q: Oooh ooh, I know this one. You climb the mast and scream at the top of your lungs, “IS THAT THE BEST YOU CAN DO???!!”

A: Hmmm, no, you seem to be quoting Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump.

Q: Oh okay, yes, perhaps.

A: What MOST people do in bad weather on a boat is go below deck, usually where you can shelter from a storm. In fact, the phrase was originally a little more nautical – “under the weather bow”, with the weather bow being the side of the ship that the storm was blowing.

Q: I’m still confused. Why then doesn’t “under the weather” mean “to take shelter”?

A: Because we’ve left one big part of the story out.

Q: Oh my mum used to leave parts of stories out too when I was a kid, so I wouldn’t be scared before bed. I loved hearing about “Goldilocks and the Mismatched Furniture” or “Hansel and Gretel and the Abandoned Candy House”.

A: Okay, a lot to unpack there. 

Q: Admit it, the actual versions of those stories are rather dark!

A: True. Well in our story, we left out the part about “seasickness”. In rough weather, retreating under the weather bow would help ease feeling ill. And so that is how the association came about. 

Q: Well that makes sense. So, next time I’m feeling sick, I should climb aboard a ship and go down into the cabins…

A: Ummm no. It originated at sea, but it’s not a suggestion of where to go – it just means that you’re unwell.

Q: Okay, well that was a fairly straightforward one today. Almost as straightforward as that classic fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood walks to Grandma’s and then Returns Home”. Love that one…

A: …

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