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More from the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. In this particular scene, one character, Sergeant George, is infuriated at another character, Mr. Smallwood, his petty landlord come to turn him out of his place of business; all the while Smallwood is reneging on a past agreement between the two men. The situation quickly escalates and George, a military man, and a man of honor, threatens Mr. Smallwood by leveling a pistol at him, causing Smallwood to cry out "steady on!", and hurriedly retreat from his mission of eviction.

So my question is: What does this phrase, "steady on", mean? I got from context that it would cause someone angry to stop what they're doing, but does it mean something more exact outside this particular context? If it does in fact mean something, how do you get from the ambiguous "steady on" to the actual meaning of the phrase — what's the thinking behind the "steady", for example? And finally, would the phrase be current today?

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You realise that the dialects of Britain vary considerably? There is no sensible dialect that could be called "British English", as the accepted formal speech of the middle classes varies between the parts of the UK. –  Marcin May 17 '11 at 11:04
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In a country where a polite cough is the only acceptable way of warning the captain that he is about to hit an iceberg - then 'steady on' is about the most extreme comment you can make about somebody's behavior in English –  mgb May 17 '11 at 15:04
    
Sort of like "chill"...although I don't know if that is used much anymore. –  user23723 Jul 18 '12 at 22:15
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This derived from instructions to the helmsman to "hold your course" (in the face of some event) and evolved into the meaning of "don't act precipitously". You'll find it regularly in the works of Aurthur Ransom, among other British writers.

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+1 for the Nautical reference. The OED entry for steady on is "Orig. Naut. = ‘steer steady’: Also in sporting contexts, or gen., or transf. Freq. in colloq. phrases expressing caution, as steady as she goes, steady on (with something), steady there, etc.; steady the Buffs, hold on! keep calm! be careful!" –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 17 '11 at 16:19
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It could very well be equivalent to "Take it easy!"

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It means "calm down" or "hold on" - it can refer both to actual calmness, and to holding off from some (allegedly) hasty action.

The closest American equivalent with which I am familiar is "slow your roll".

It is still current in England.

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I haven't actually heard "slow your roll", and it makes sense when I know the context, but I don't think I'd understand it as well as "steady on", even though the latter sounds definitely British and perhaps last century. Now that I think of it, no general American phrase comes to mind beyond your suggested "calm down" or "hold on". I can think of phrases that fit specific situations, such as "back off" which implies a counter-threat by the speaker, or "be cool" which is rather slang and sub-cultural, but nothing as general as "steady on". –  Wayne May 17 '11 at 12:34
    
@Wayne: how about “Whoa there!”? –  PLL Oct 16 '11 at 14:07
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protected by RegDwigнt Aug 17 '12 at 12:26

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