Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Episode 96: Under the Weather Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 96: Under The Weather

Record Date: January 18, 2021

Air Date: January 20, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week we’re going with a phrase that seems to have made its debut to the written word in the early 1800s, but likely was in spoken word well before it made it to print. And this phrase seems to have an uncertain origin story, so we’ll walk through the possible starts.

Here we go, with “Under the Weather”.


Merriam Webster has Under the Weather as meaning “temporarily suffering from a disorder of the body” as well as “being under the influence of alcohol”.

Cambridge Dictionary says “If someone is or feels under the weather, he or she does not feel well”.

The Oxford English Dictionary says under the weather means “indisposed” or “not quite well”.

And in this case, indisposed means “slightly unwell”


Feeling sick

Being drunk

Here’s an example from 1837

And another from 1850

Or this satirical one from 1910

But where did it start?

The OED has the first attestation in 1827 in a letter by Ben Milam which was published in The Austin Papers, 1st editions. Texas listeners, or history buffs, might recognize the name as Benjamin Rush Milam was a hero of the Texas Revolution. This letter would have been penned following the Fredonian Rebellion near Nacogdoches , which was the first attempt by Anglo settlers in Texas to secede from Mexico. 

This section of the letter is what we might call a post script, or PS. Ben Milam was writing to Colonel Stephen F Austin about his concern for the opposition of colonization. 

“Give my respects to all friends and write us as often as you have opportunity - the fredonians is all here rather under the wether.” - volume 2 part 2, PDF page scan 622

It’s difficult to know if everyone was sick, or if everyone was sulking due to the defeat of the rebellion less than two months prior. Or if everyone was drinking away their sorrows.  The only thing I could definitely take from this is  Ben Milam was using the phrase idiomatically. 

The Austin papers (ed. Eugene Campbell Barker) · 1st edition, 1924–1928 (3 vols.). (Vols. I-II: Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1919 and 1922. Vol. III published by the University of Austin.).

But there is a problem here with the written record and who had the pleasure of writing things down for future generations to pick through. You see, numerous sources place “under the weather” as originating as a nautical phrase. 

But the thing is Ben Milam wasn’t a sailor. And nothing I saw made me think he spent much time at sea, or even around other sailors. Which would make one wonder - was this phrase really of nautical origin? If so, this phrase may have been in a more common usage in 1827 than the written record would indicate. 

So let’s jump in the record…

I’m going to mix several online stories together to get a common thread. I don’t want to cite them because many of the sites I saw are not know for their strong research on other idioms they list. In fact, they mostly just copy each others work. 

So generally, the story goes one of two ways.

  1. When a sailor was feeling ill, they would be sent below decks so they could recover. They would literally be “under the weather”

  2. When a sailor was feeling ill, they were said to be under the weather bow, which is the side of the ship that the wind is blowing from and, therefore, the side of the ship that gets beaten up the most.

Now we always take these sites with a pound or two of salt because they rarely cite their works and when they do they often cite another website - which will cite the original one. It’s a big circle of citing each other… if they cite at all.  But there is some decent evidence for nautical origins of the phrase.

First, let’s look at some specific nautical terminology…

So we’ve established pretty well that the weather side of anything is the side the wind, and therefore the weather, is coming from. 

And while I was researching, I found a few examples of “under the weather shore” in books from the 1800s. 

Sailing under the weather shore, would mean from the perspective of the ship, this is the side of the island where the wind is blowing from and hitting the ship. Which means the wind is blowing away from the island. Being on the side of the island where the wind is blowing towards the island would risk the ship getting pushed too close to shore. And with no island to act as a windblock, the ship would take the full brunt of wind and wave alike.

And here’s an example of literally being under the weather bulwark to get out of the cold wind...

So being under, or below, something that would be called a weather _____, would have been common among ships. So how do we get under the weather being associated with being sick? Let’s look at this entry from the Summer 2020 release of Words the Sea Gave Us, by Grace Tierney.

So that’s the most likely reason we make the association between the two. As far as timing goes, we just aren’t sure. We know it was almost certainly in the spoken language far before we saw it in print, but how far back? Well that is a far more difficult prospect to determine. 

A Quick Thank You


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Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Under the Weather: How Weather and Climate Affect Our Health - Pat Thomas 2004

An entertaining and fact-filled look at the links between health and climate, this book details both short-term symptoms and life-threatening conditions that can be aggravated by the weather. It explains how to be protected from the extremes of weather as well as how to ease weather-related symptoms. Startling weather-related observations include evidence that the onset of labor is more common when barometric pressure is falling; migraines can be made much worse by cold and winds; deaths from heart disease are more common on days when there are blustery winds bringing changeable temperatures; changes in humidity can cause scar tissue to ache; and patients with noninherited forms of schizophrenia are twice as likely to have been born in extreme weather conditions as those with the inherited form of the disease.

Under the Weather - KT Tunstall - from her debut album Eye to the Telescope 2004

Under this national rain cloud

I'm getting soaked to the skin

Trying to find my umbrella

But I don't know where to begin

And it's simply irrational weather

I can't even hear myself think

Constantly bailing out water

But still feel like I'm gonna sink

'Cause I'm under the weather

Just like the world

So sorry for being so bold

Under the Weather: Stories About Climate Change - 2012

From the effects of rising sea levels to changes in animal behaviour and human lifestyles, these powerful stories portray the issues surrounding climate change in personal terms and so bring them vividly to life. Offering warnings and inspiration in equal measure, the stories cover a wide range of localities from Siberia and Canada to Australia, UK, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Writers include award-winning Linda Newbery as well as exciting newcomers like Australia's George Ivanoff. Whether read from cover to cover or dipped into for one or two stories, this book will enlighten and inspire everyone to consider how climate change will affect us all.

And the last one I want to include is a haiku, by Stephanie Mohan, June 2015

Under the weather

All is not right with your world

Wait for the sunshine

Wrap up...

Researching this was great fun. It took me what seemed like forever to find a digital copy of the 1827 letter by Ben Milam. The OED had the quote, but just listed it as a letter by B.R.Milam so I started working backward from there to get to the Texas Revolution to the Fredonian Rebellion and finally back to the Austin Papers from the HathiTrust digital library collections. 

I grew up in Texas, and Texas History was a pretty big deal in public school during the late 80s and early 90s. It might still be for all I know. So it was a bit nostalgic seeing names and events that I learned about growing up. But I’m also more than 30 years older now, too. And experience has taught me that when it comes to wars, revolutions, and fighting of any sort, history is recorded by the winners. So I try not to romanticize Texas fighting for Independence from Mexico, when a few years earlier those same people were helping Mexico win independence from Spain, and all of this was happening on lands that originally were the home of several indigenous Nations. Kind of puts a damper on the hero worship. Which is probably a good thing.



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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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