In which we search for the origins of an expression
The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is when you hear or see something, usually something obscure, and then start to see it everywhere. It’s like when you hear a word used in a t.v. show and then the next day you overhear it on the bus - you might never have noticed it on the bus if your brain hadn’t been primed to receive it by having had the previous experience.
And that’s what’s been happening to me recently with the expression “Worse things happen at sea.” I heard a song, I googled the song, I found so many more use cases of the phrase than I ever expected. Now, a month later, I see it everywhere.
So, I got curious about the expression - where does it come from? Is there a documented first use? Does everyone agree on the meaning? And, is it really true? Do worse things really happen at sea?
In this issue:
What We’re Learning: Worse Things Happen At Sea
What We’re Reading: The Mother Tongue
Down the Rabbit Hole: Research Me Baby
Let’s get to it.
What We’re Learning:
Worse Things Happen At Sea
The nature of proverbs and expressions is such that we (English speakers in this case) are not always on the same page with what a given idiom actually means. Sometimes this is because meanings shift as cultural events are associated with a phrase, sometimes because the original physical marker gets lost to time, sometimes because things just be like that.
What does “Worse Things Happen at Sea” actually mean?
Wiktionary: Things are not as bad as they seem.
Proverb Hunter: We say this in a resigned tone when we find ourselves in an awkward or difficult situation, or when we have to put up with something less than we expected.
Using English: This idiomatic expression is used as a way of telling someone not to worry so much about their problems.
All three definitions match my understanding of the phrase, so, uh, good job me? But that was the easy part. Linguists are rarely able to pinpoint the exact creation of an idiom. Even when a first-use-in-print can be identified, we can’t always tell if that first use was a new coinage or merely putting into print what people were already saying.
John Edwards, writing on his Words Words Words (and Phrases) blog provided this excellent summation:
This phrase meaning if things are bad ashore, then they could be a lot worse at sea is quoted on one website as having come into the English language in Neville (sic) Shute's 'No Highway' in the 1940s. In practice Nevil Shute's 'No Highway' (1948) was written 100 years after the first record I can trace which is in Joan Fleming's 'Screams from a Penny Dreadful'. In that book, Fleming quotes a diary entry of 24 August 1842 which includes the phrase. There may well be older references I haven't found.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as I got. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Edwards’ research but I haven’t been able to duplicate it with the resources available to me and, well, part of the trouble with trying to trace the origins of idioms comes in trying to sort through the modern clutter.
In this case something about the lyricism of the phrase - and, make no mistake, it's very poetic - has meant that there are countless songs, poems, plays, chapter titles, blog entries, and so forth and so on, that cursory searches to find the history of the phrase have little use.
So, I went a little wider and a little deeper with this search (see the Rabbit Hole for my usual research locations) but was unable to make any progress. Truthfully, all my queries brought nothing but studies about fisheries and citations of ocean conditions reports. Not quite what I was looking for. I assume there is some point-of-origin, some genesis spark that gives us the whole context of how the proverb entered the English language.
The truth is, I may not find an answer. Many proverbs don't have clear, single point origins. As I said above, they begin in oral tradition and, over time, a particularly witty or poignant or apropos phrase enters the lexicon and becomes a part of the language for better or for worse. It may be just the case in this case.
And if we never find the answer, well, worse things happen at sea, you know?
Worse Things That Have Happened At Sea (but Only Metaphorically)
— Worse Things Happen at Sea by Frank Turner (NSFW Language):
— Worse Things Happen at Sea by Kellie Strom
— Worse Things Happen at Sea by Ben Langworthy:
What We're Reading:
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson probably needs no introduction at this point, at least if you read this newsletter anyway. He's the guy who wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, Notes from a Small Island, and, one of my favorite travelogues, In a Sun Burnt Country. Bryson writes about travel, language, and culture. Basically, dude is the writer I wish I could be.
This book, Mother Tongue, is a book about language. Specifically, it's a book about our language and holds a wealth of anecdotes and odd facts about English all supported by meticulous research. Bryson starts with human anatomy and why we are able to speak and then takes us on a tour of Europe in the middle ages to show how English has become what it is and how much grammar and vocabulary it stole along the way.
For anyone interested in language, English, or linguistic history, this book is a must read. Follow it up by Bryson's other book about English - Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words and annoy everyone you know with your newfound wisdom!
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Down the Rabbit Hole:
Research Me Baby!
Occasionally, this happens. My research has gotten nowhere. "Worse things happen at sea," has an origin, but whatever that origin is, it's not readily available on the internet. I don't like to give up on quests like these, though. Instead, I relegate it to a short but always increasing list of 'mysteries' that I will, one day, solve, if for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. And, for the moment, that's where this one has to go.
Still, for anyone whose curiosity has been as piqued as mine, here are a few places that I'll be continuing my search as time and resources allow.
Project Gutenberg - Old books. Lots and lots of them.
The Library of Congress - If it was published in the U.S., they’ve got a record.
JSTOR - “Journals, Primary Sources, and Books.”
Sketch Engine - Search through linguistic corpora.
Google Scholar - Google for serious searches.
Google Trends - Google for pop-culture searches.
ProQuest - “Databases, EBooks and Technology for Research,” oh my.
Browzine - Readable archive of scholarly journals.
The British Library - Just what it sounds like.
Reddit What Is This Thing - Got a thing that you don’t know what it is?
Reddit Tip of My Tongue - Got a word that you can’t remember?
Reddit Ask Historians - Good answers at a great price (free!)
If you've got a good reference site similar to any of these, let me know and I'll edit my list. And, in the meantime, what mysteries are you trying to track down?
The End of the Letter:
“Worse things happen at sea, you know?”
That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.