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Consider "on the way." (As in "are you coming home?" "we're on the way.")

Is the origin from something relating to "way" meaning a lane or roadway,

or, is the origin something relating to the nautical term way (which essentially means "speed", as in "you need some way to be able to turn")

To rephrase ...

Noting that (a) "way" is a common nautical term and (b) indeed many phrases come from nautical phrases, in fact, did this phrase come from a nautical phrase (indeed just as in "underway" or "under way", the nautical phrase).

  • If you investigate the heritage of words like "way" you will find that many concepts have intertwined over the millennia to produce the current set of meanings. (This is true of most "everyday" English words.) Online Etymology ascribes it to old German meaning "to move", but one can't help noticing the similarity to the Latin "via". – Hot Licks Aug 16 '15 at 12:57
  • whatsa tha way-ah ... hmm could be right – Fattie Aug 16 '15 at 18:47
  • Hi Hot .. now that there's a Fat Bounty ... your comment is surely generally a true thought, but not really a specific answer to this question. – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 14:17
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    Once you have this settled you should nail down the origin of be. – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 18:19
  • I strongly suggest you just ark the question for closure then ?!?! Go for it .. – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 19:03
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+150

The OED does mention the nautical sense of 'way' at 7i (italics mine):

Naut. Progress (of a ship or boat) through the water; rate of progress, velocity; impetus gained by a vessel in motion.

A speculative see-also under the definition reads

Cf. under way at sense 38a (38), from which this sense was perh. evolved.

intimating that the nautical sense may have evolved from the sense at 38a, which includes the phrase you asked about:

under way Naut. [ < Dutch onderweg (also -wegen) on the way, ...

The earliest quote in the OED exemplifying this latter use is from 1743:

1743 J. Bulkeley & J. Cummins Voy. to South-seas 98 To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.

The earliest quote exemplifying the former nautical sense of 'velocity, rate of progress', is, however, from 1663:

1663 W. Davenant Siege of Rhodes II. ii. i, Those who withstand The Tide of Flood..Fall back when they in vain would onward row: We strength and way preserve by lying still.

Now, the sense of 'in the course of a journey' is given in 36a:

on (or upon) the, or one's, way : on, or in the course of, a journey. ...

where the earliest quote exemplifying the use is from c1000:

c1000 West Saxon Gospels: Matt. (Corpus Cambr.) v. 25 Beo þu onbugende þinum wiðerwinnan hraðe þa hwile þe ðu eart on wege mid him.

Note that on wege is Old English equivalent to the present day English phrase 'on the way'.

The nautical sense of 'way' as velocity and the sense of 'way' as a journey arose from the same roots. However, the nautical sense arose at a much later time and appears to me to have been sponsored by the 'journey' sense, rather than the other way around.

Edit:

I wasn't aware at the time I wrote the above of the casual folk etymology (perhaps arising from the heedless speculative interjection in the OED) ascribing the origin of the phrase 'on the way' to Dutch onderweg[en]. Even after becoming aware of that casual etymology, I did not take it seriously: the notion does not match up with the textual evidence in hand. The quote from c1000 of the phrase on weg predates the earliest quote exampling Dutch use of onderweg in the sense of 'under way' by somewhere around seven centuries, after all. And that objection says nothing of the extraneous complications arising out of the muddled chronology in which the Dutch use of onderweg is bound up with 'under' (onder, that is, 'on the') as used in the phrase 'under sail'.

However, being of a curious and stubborn nature, I cast about (not 'came about') looking for any additional evidence that might support the rather remote possibility that the sense of the phrase as given by the OP ('in the course of a journey') had some nautical origin afterward reflected in the Dutch appropriation and purportedly hard of hearing sailors' nautical transference of that appropriation to 'under'. As usual, the simplest and most straightforward interpretation of the evidence remained, to all appearances, the best.

I did find others than myself worrying the nonissue. At Grammarphobia, in an entry dated March 19th, 2009, I found reasoning closely paralleling my own as set forth above this edit. In particular, the following about the quotes found by the OED scholars regarding the 'underway' term from Dutch onderweg:

The chronology doesn’t seem right, however, since published citations for “under way” are all more recent than those for “way” in the nautical sense. But “under way” might have been in use for years without making it into print.

Years in use without making it into print, yes, but probably not the seven centuries it would take for 'underway', however bound up and confused with a nautical sense of 'on the way', to take a central or otherwise prominent spot as the origin of the phrase 'on the way' in the sense of 'in the course of a journey' as found in the Old English phrase "...on the way with him" (translation of the OED quote c1000), a phrase equally if not more likely to "have been in use for years without making it into print"--especially considering the comparative scarcity of any sort of print c1000.

Still not satisfied (curious and stubborn to a fault), I kept looking until, after a brief flirtation with a Romanian encyclopedia compilation website that had the annoying habit of changing from English to Romainian at fairly rapid intervals, I verified that onderwegen means, literally, 'under or among the ways', and wegen means, as expected from all the evidence I'd already examined, 'roads or paths'. Thus, even supposing against all available evidence that 'on the way' originated as a 17th century sailing terminological corruption of onderweg (meaning 'underway'), the origin of onderweg must be refered back to its literal (that is, minimally metaphorical) nonnautical sense of 'on the road, path'.

  • spectacular answer from a new user!!!!! "way" to go ... – Fattie Aug 16 '15 at 11:49
  • it would seem this answer deserves the Massive Bounty. So that there is no mutiny regarding bounties, does anyone have a contrary opinion? Cheers all – Fattie Aug 24 '15 at 19:00
  • Although displayName brought to light an article that is spot-on to the issue at hand, it seems hard to argue that JEL here provided the most research, detail and thinking on the topic, so enjoy that bounty. – Fattie Aug 26 '15 at 10:21
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After reading the article available here, I have come to understand that the phrase on the way has actually come from the nautical term - way rather than the 'way' as in lane or roadway.

Quoting the article,

The term 'under sail' and 'underway' appear at first sight to be quite similar. The former seems easy to interpret, as sailing ships are literally under the sails when in motion, but what are we under in 'underway'? That is easier to understand when we know that this 'under' was originally 'on the'. Knowing that, 'on the way' makes sense. 'On the way' migrated to 'underway', probably due to the influence of the Dutch word 'onderweg', which translates into English as 'underway' but to 17th century sailors must have sounded more like 'on the way'.

Thus, even though we mean that we are approaching something when we say that we are on the way, yet the origin of this phrase is from the nautical word.

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    @JoeBlow - A term like "way" is so integral to the language that it's meaningless to ask for "first usage". The concept existed for millennia, well before even archaic English was thought of, and the word (in it's current form) no doubt entered the language through multiple paths. – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 16:30
  • Hi Hot. Is it that complicated? Say someone had replied "Oh, 'on the way' was a common nautical term in 1800, see here, then it came in to general use" that would be the end of it. Here we have a question about an idiom ("on the way"). You're pointing out that the word "way" is a common and old word -- I don't see the problem. I'll edit the question to make it clearer ... – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 16:33
  • I appreciate you're saying the word "way" has a mixed, multivariable origin. I'm just asking about that phrase (which strikes one as highly nautical, me harties). – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 16:36
  • @JoeBlow: Updated the answer. Changed it entirely. – displayName Aug 22 '15 at 3:51
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    hi displayName! I'm not sure if you get what I'm saying ... the common phrase "a contrary opinion" might be used to label a contrary, let's say, viewpoint or answer (à la minority report) without reference to the epistemology of "opinion" versus "fact" and such debates; thus, I was not indicating "your answer is just an opinion", rather, I was jocularly or idimoatically pointing out "way to go on being the lone voice on the other side of the debate". – Fattie Aug 24 '15 at 19:03
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A brief look in the OED doesn't find speed as a nautical meaning of "way"; it would seem that definition II.6, an unobstructed passage, is more apt. All of the definitions in II ("course of travel or movement") give us the connotation for the meaning of "on the way," a locution which the OED notes has come down to us from the Old English on wege.

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I'd answer this by considering the same or similar usages in other sentences, such as:

"On the way home, we saw a fox."

Here there is no indication at all of speed or haste. Seeing the fox was an incident that happened during the journey, and so here the term way is defined as the path or route travelled, for example, "Is this the way to Amarillo?"

Another example, more closely to your initial post:

"Where are you going?" "We're on our way to the Emerald City."

Again, it's obvious that way shows no indication of the speed of the journey, but is directly referring to the journey itself. Therefore your example of "on the way" is the path definition, not the nautical definition.

  • I appreciate the answer but am not really sure it answers the question .. for example, simply when was the phrase first used? – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 14:19
  • Ah you were more interested in etymology and history of usage? "way" seems to derive from the germanic "weg". It appears to be as old as written history as it has been used since Saxon times. etymonline.com/index.php?term=way – Seth Jeffery Aug 23 '15 at 14:08
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Way seems to mean, at its most basic, a course. To "make way" or make "headway" is to progress. When you are on your way home, you are on en route and are literally on a course for home. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the term "underway" was first used in 1749 in reference to ships having begun to move. This supports the nautical origin because movement is related to the way as in speed. However, in as early as 1550 the phrase "one way or (the) other" was used in the sense of a route, or course. From this I think that the nautical sense of speed or movement came from the older meaning of way meaning course. It makes sense that the modern phrase of "on the way home" comes from the non-nautical meaning because you using "way" as a noun that you on, i.e. a route. The nautical way is something you might need to engage the rudder but does not seem related in grammar or meaning to the current meaning of the word.

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By the way connotes the speaker's narrative is an idiomatic journey, hence the use of the word 'way'. The added information is something you would generally 'see' on the 'journey' of the speaker's topic.

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