Conversational Curiosities

17 Oct

Daria Wallace

I’m feeling a little under the weather. I’ll refrain from regaling you with tales of my infirmity (influenza – from the Italian for influence, coming from explanations of sickness as resulting from the influence of the stars, God or the Devil). Our concern here is language, not medicine. My aim is to draw your attention to this linguistic curiosity – a word which, rather appropriately in this case, shares its root with the word “cure” (from the latin “cura”, to care – thus to care for or, in the case of curiosity, to have interest in). So let’s kill two birds with one etymological stone, and hope that curiosity cures the cat.

So what does the weather have to do with anything? And surely we are always inescapably under it? According to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, this idiom has nautical roots: “When you’re at sea and the weather becomes a bit rough, the ship starts to roll and your stomach feels a bit queasy, its time for you to go below to your cabin – under the weather”. A reasonable explanation which proves to have several variations, not least of which is the perhaps obvious connection between bad weather and bad stomachs at sea. Aside from the idea of your health being under the influence of the weather, some argue that the phrase is in fact a shortened version of “under the weather bow”, this being the side of the ship taking the brunt of bad weather. Yet another maritime link has been made between the phrase and the captain’s log book: apparently, a list of sick crew members would be entered into the log each day directly underneath the weather report; thus ill people were to be found “under the weather”.

Perhaps the most unexpected explanation, however, has nothing to do with the sea. Actually, it has nothing to do with the weather. According to this theory, the phrase in fact involves a “wether”, a castrated male sheep, and derives from the fact that a female sheep will resist the attempts of such wethers to mount her. If she is ill or somehow indisposed she will be incapable of fending off his attentions, and may find herself, quite literally, under a wether.

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