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’re a little tongue-tied…
Q: Hi AWC, I have a question.
A: Good, that’s your job.
Q: I received an email the other day where the person used the phrase “that should tie you over”… Ummm, is this a thing?
A: You’re thinking it should be “tide”?
Q: Well, yes actually.
A: And you’d be correct.
Q: Phew. Okay, but then I’m thinking WHY is it “tide me over”? That appears to make very little sense, and possibly why some end up assuming it’s “tie”. Maybe?
A: It’s true that many may hear it as “tied you over” and think they are simply using the present tense when saying “tie you over”.
Q: Oh good point.
A: And possibly because “tide you over” sounds equally ridiculous, they perhaps have less trouble imagining “tie”. After all, we talk of how to tie one idea to the other etc.
Q: And how to tie buttered toast to a cat.
A: Ummm. Awkward silence.
Q: It was a science experiment.
A: Okay, whatever you say.
Q: Anyway, so where DID this saying come from? Can you help stem the tide of confusion?
A: We certainly can. To “tide over” is an idiom that has its origins in the early 1600s. Its current meaning often relates to money, food or stocks of some kind and making a small allowance last until things are topped up again. So “here’s $50 to tide you over until payday” might be heard.
Q: Could you make it $100?
A: What? It’s just an example.
A: $40 and that’s our best offer.
Q: Great, thanks. I’ll pay it back.
A: No you won’t.
Q: Anyway, so what did “tide over” mean originally?
A: Well you’ll be pleased to know that it DID once have plenty to do with actual tides.
Q: I’m so pleased to know that.
A: “Tiding over” was a term used by sailors to mean floating with the tide before dropping anchor. A kind of passive sailing when no wind was present. It first appeared in print in 1627.
Q: And when did it sail into its more contemporary meaning?
A: Over the following century and a half, it became more about floating over obstacles on a swelling tide – as in “to cope with a short term problem”. By the early 1800s, this meaning (similar to today) was established.
Q: Okay, here we go. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “tide over” as “To get over or surmount (a difficulty, time of stress, etc) as if by rising on the flowing tide, or by taking advantage of a favourable tide.”
A: Yes, and these days it’s less about “tiding over difficulties” and more “tiding someone over”. A subtle shift.
Q: Wait, didn’t “tide” once meant “time”?
A: Yes, long before the 14th century – that’s why we have a word like Yuletide and a saying like “Time and tide wait for no man”.
Q: Actually, we discussed Yuletide in one of our chats last Christmas.
A: Good memory. So, in summary, it’s definitely “tide over” and not “tie over”.
Q: Brilliant, thanks for that. Now can you help me with this mistletoe? I just want to tie it over the door here.
A: Sorry, our hands are tied. You have forty bucks, go buy a step ladder.