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Under the weather — What Does it Mean?

We know this means to be sick or ill, but why?

Like so many set phrases in English, to be under the weather is a sailing term. There are several conjectures as how it came about.

Here are three:

A picture the ship's log from the U.S.S. Seminole, Thursday, November 07, 1861.
  1. Back in the sailing days, captains kept logs of all the activity on the boat, including who was ill. When the number of sick sailors exceeded the space allotted in the ship’s log for sick sailors their names were written under the weather section of the log.
  2. In the days of sailing and even in the golden days of steam powered ships, passengers would often get seasick. The ill would be advised to sleep off their nausea under the ship’s weather rail. This is the below-deck area on the side of the boat that faces the wind.
  3. Ill passengers and sailors alike would go below deck, out of the weather and under the topsides of the ship. Perhaps the notion of out of the elements and underneath were joined.

It is neat to point out that if one or one’s machines are “ship-shape” they are in good condition. Though this is not the literal opposite of “under the weather” it is a contrasting phrase. You can’t be ship-shape if you are under the weather.


What Are Idioms?

Idioms are phrases in language that are used to convey emotions about certain topics. They are fascinating to everyday language speakers and linguists for a couple of reasons. They exist in a space between grammar and single words—this means that they somewhat conform to grammatical rules, yet have to be learned phrase by phrase just like most words need to be learned. Idioms also preserve in them the history of how and where they came to be. Certain idioms haven’t left their villages in rural England. Others are universal. Variations in one idiom tell us about where they have been in time and place. They remind us of times long-gone and places near and far—when and where the world was different but people were the same.