The other day, I received a Facebook link to a brief video from National Geographic Adventure. The accompanying text read, “Interested in rowing? These common phrases will help you get started.” There is footage of rowing to illustrate the vocabulary: coxswain, weigh enough, split, catch and finish, and catch a crab. It’s a fairly random list, but all press is good press, right? I was just happy to see rowing get its due.
However, the spelling of “weigh enough,” led me back to one of my oldest columns, when over 20 years ago I took this on. I can remember as a young cox wondering not only how the phrase was spelled, but even what the words were. I’d swear that one of our coaches used to say, “Way (or weigh) and up.” That made sense to me; we were supposed to stop rowing and balance the blades above the water. Consulting with the other coxes, I learned that one of them even thought the phrase was, “Wayne, nuff!” Yet when I finally got over my embarrassment and asked just what was I supposed to be yelling I was told, “Weigh enough. This comes from the same use of the word weigh as ‘to weigh anchor’ (to lift anchor) or ‘anchors aweigh,’ meaning to raise up the anchor so that the boat can proceed.” Like all high school kids, I took my god-like coach’s word as law. Having pursued this matter beyond ordinary lengths, I spent the next 25 years secure in my knowledge.
Soon after publication, I heard from readers around the globe. The most erudite of them, one Tom Moore of Wayne, Penn., wrote, “My old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says, ‘Way, n., advance; progress; headway; as the ship in starting gathers way;’ and in another place, ‘weigh is erroneously used for way.’” Mr. Moore then exceeds the limits of good taste when he adds, “Doctor Rowing has the same spelling problem.” (Emphasis mine)
However, never trust simple explanations. The verb weigh comes into English from the Anglo-Saxon wegan, meaning to lift or to move. Its root words seem to be the Icelandic vega meaning to bear, to lift, or to move, and the Germanic wiegen meaning to rock or move. The Latin vehere, meaning to bear or carry, is a likely source for all of the above. What seems clear is that at some distant point in our linguistic past the sense of motion implied in all of these verbs came to mean lifting, as one does to an anchor when wishing to begin to sail.
Wiegen and wegan are also both roots for way. Our modern sense of way (as in, ‘Do you know the way to San Jose?’) suggests a path or a route and comes from wegan, to move (toward something). The Nautical Dictionary of 1863 goes on to add of under way, “This expression, often used instead of under weigh, seems to be a convenient one for denoting that a ship or boat is making progress through the water, whether by sails or other motive power.”
Is it important which spelling is chosen? In my youth, I thought so. Now, with the wisdom of the ancients, it seems much less critical. As long as we know that whether “to weigh” or “to way” means to move, and you have done enough moving, that’ll do nicely.
Dear Doctor Rowing,
For the sake of branding and identity, wouldn’t it be nice if all our national team blades had a consistent blue color? Our athletes have worked too hard and sacrificed too much to appear to be part of a rag-tag team that can’t even get the same shade of blue on their blades. (Wikipedia references “Old Glory Blue” for the American flag.) The home-soil world Championships are almost upon us!
Mid-Island New York
And wouldn’t it be great if our congressmen could reach across the aisle and pass legislation that wasn’t beholden to special interest groups? And if peace would break out in the Middle East? And the buffalo could return to the range?
Of course, this would be a good thing, but in order for this to happen, you would need to have someone organize the paint purchasing and distribution. A quick review of how oars get painted: American athletes, whether they have been named to the team through a camp process or a trials process, are responsible for having their own oars painted—or nowadays, taped. Typically, this task is left until the last moment so that the blades are as pristine as possible for racing. (You should see what happens to a nice paint job when an oar smacks a floating log.) A coach or team member rushes to the local paint store and purchases whatever is available. Upon return, the paint is applied, sometimes brushed on, sometimes sprayed.
It’s not impossible, of course, for a team manager from USRowing to purchase all of the necessary supplies and wait until the whole team is together before parceling them out for painting. All it takes is planning and getting everyone together in one place with time to paint and let the oars dry. But I agree with you. We put a man on the moon, didn’t we?