Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for the idiom "stem the tide":

stem the tide Stop the course of a trend or tendency, as in It is not easy to stem the tide of public opinion. The idiom uses stem in the sense of "stop" or "restrain." {Mid-1800s}

But Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has as one of its three discrete entries for stem as a verb this entry:

stem vt stemmed; stemming {ME (Sc) stemmen to keep a course, fr. stem (of a ship)} (1593) 1 : to make headway against (as an adverse tide, current, or wind) 2 : to check or go counter to (something adverse)

A Google Books search turns up fairly early instances of "stem the tide" in both the "make progress against a tide" and the "block the advance of a tide" senses.

From Will Dampier, A Voyage to New-Holland, &c. in the Year 1699 (1703):

We were driven four Leagues back again, and took particular Notice of a Point of Land that looked like Flamborough-head, when we were either to the East or West of it ; and near the Shore it appeared like an Island. Four or five Leagues to the East of this Point, is another very remarkable bluff Point, which is on the West side of the Bay that my Boat was in. [Table cross reference omitted.] We could not stem the Tide, till about three a Clock in the Afternoon [of September 30]; when the Tide running with us, we soon got abreast of the Bay, and then saw a small Island to the Eastward of us.

And contrastingly, from Francis Drake, Eboracum: or, The History and Antiquities of the City of York, from its Original to the Present Times (1736):

About this time [1625] the great cut for draining the levels below Doncaster was made. A noble canal, and first undertaken by one Cornelins Vermeydan a Dutchman ; but afterwards compleated by his executors. It is a strait channel of near five miles in length, and near a hundred yards broad at high water ; it empties itself into the Ouse at a village called Gool. This cut was originally designed for a drain to such lands in the levels, whose water could not any other way be so conveniently carried off. But for their own safety, as well as by a remonstrance from the city of York, they built a sluice and flood-gates at the mouth of it to stop the tide from taking that course. In the year 1688, or thereabouts, by a violent land flood, this work blew up, and was never since repaired, as there are still living witnesses can testify. The land owners in those parts have been ever since at great expence to stem the tide which flows impetuously in, and daily undermines their works.

A further complication is that one of the earliest metaphorical appearances of "stem the tide" could easily be read as meaning, not "make progress against the tide" or "stop the advance of the tide," but rather "oppose the tide, whether successfully or not." From "A Speech of MENTOR, imitated from the 22d Book of TELEMACHUS," in The Gentleman's Magazine (October 1737):

Who, nobly warm'd, shall, in his country's cause,/Rife up to stem the tide of publick mischief?/Alas in vain! the truly great, the wise,/The bravely just, their patriot virtues scorn'd,/Hopeless, retire to peaceful silent shades,/And mourn in private o'er their country's ruin. ... Nay those who see the folly, and condemn,/Yet dare not be the first to stem the tide./Thus the whole Nation sinks and falls to ruin:/All rank is lost, all order is confus'd.

My questions:

  1. What are the earliest known occurrences of "stem the tide," in each of the senses described above, both literally (with regard to an actual tide) and figuratively (with regard to a metaphorical tide)?

  2. What was the more common sense of the idiom historically, and when (if at all) did the preponderant sense change?

  3. Is "stem the tide" still used in multiple senses today?


According to Etymonline, the original meaning of stem is to stop, to hold back:

Stem the tide:

  • Phrase to stem the tide is literally "to hold back the tide," but often is confused with stem (v.2) "make headway against."

Also from the OED:

  • (trans.) To stop, check; to dam up (a stream, or the like). When used fig. in phrases like ‘to stem the tide’, this verb is sometimes confused with stem v.4, "to make headway against".

    • 1450 St. Cuthbert (Surtees) 4313 Þere myght na thing thaim stem.
    • 1713 Steele Englishm. No. 28. 184 They were able to stem the proceedings of the Crown when they pleased.

Other sayings may have contributed to the confusion on the usage of stem meaning "make headway against" such as the following from the OED:

To stem one's course:

  • to make one's way against difficulties (rare)

    • 1826 M. W. Shelley Last Man II. 36 Slowly and sadly I stemned [sic] my course from among the heaps of slain.

The Phrase Finder cites the followin usage:

Stem the tide:

  • Arrest or divert a trend that is running against one's interests.

    • ... Fred A. Paley, writing in 1855 on the tragedies of Ayschylus, said: "Aristophanes evidently saw the trend that was setting in favour of the new candidate for scenic supremacy, and he vainly tried to stem the tide by the barrier of his ridicule." From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers

Stem the tide:

  • Stop the course of a trend or tendency, as in It is not easy to stem the tide of public opinion. This idiom uses stem in the sense of "stop" or "restrain." [Mid-1800s] From The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer

Also from the following definitions it appears that the more common meaning is to stop, to hold back, but instances of the other connotation con be found probably because of the close analogy that the two meanings carry as shown here:

  • The general, yet incorrect, use of “stem the tide” is to deflect a serious problem, but tides can’t be deflected. A stem is the upright beam, at the fore of the ship where the hull timbers form the prow. The nautical maneuver against a surging tide is the same as against an angry sea. The ship is turned to stem the onslaught. To “stem the tide” means that to overcome serious problems, you must face them head-on.

So to answer point 2 and 3 I think that the original and more common meaning of "stem the tide" is to stop, to hold back (something).

As for early literal usage:

  • (trans.) Of a vessel, a navigator: To urge the stem against, make headway against (a tide, current, gale, etc.). Hence of a swimmer, a flying bird, and the like: To make headway against (water or wind), to breast (the waves, the air).

    • 1593 Shakes. 3 Hen. VI, ii. vi. 36 As doth a Saile, fill'd with a fretting Gust, Command an Argosie to stemme the Waues. -

    • 1654 Whitlock Zootomia 27 He that would stemme the Tyde, had need of a good Gale. -

  • Very nice research, Josh61. I'm surprised that OED and Etymonline are confident that the "hold back the tide" meaning of "stem the tide" was earlier than the "progress against the tide meaning," without offering suitably early examples of the exact phrase as evidence. I'm especially intrigued by the very close (but not quite right) example you cite from Henry the Sixth, Part III. My examples from 1703 and 1737, I suspect, are far from the earliest exact matches for the phrase, but we shall see... – Sven Yargs Jan 17 '16 at 8:32
  • From an account of Sir Thomas Gates's voyage, written in 1610 or 1611, and included in Hayklutus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes: "About seven of the clock we cast forth an Anchor, because the tyde (by reason of the Freshet that set into the Bay) made a strong Ebbe there, and the winde was but easie, so as not beeing able to stemme the Tyde, we purposed to lye at an Anchor untill the next flood, ..." – Sven Yargs Jan 17 '16 at 8:53
  • 1
    @user405662: I checked my archive of unfinished answers (of which there are many) and found that I had gotten four pages into an answer back in 2017, at which point I wandered off and never came back to it. Usually this happens either because there is an overwhelming amount of material to research (and I get discouraged) or because I didn't finish the work in a day and returning to it the next day seemed unappealing (like leftovers). The latter is the more common situation. I really should return to this question/answer at some point, however, because it's pretty interesting to me. – Sven Yargs Feb 25 at 17:43
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    @user405662: I have listed a bunch of old dictionaries and slang glossaries that I consult occasionally in the Meta resource Q&A What Good Reference Works on English Are Available. Beyond that, I regularly use the search tools at Elephind, Hathi Trust, Early English Books Online, and Google Ngram to look for source material. The best reference work for U.S. slang is Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994/1997), but you can't access it online ... – Sven Yargs Feb 26 at 8:58
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    ... and regrettably a dispute between Lighter and the publisher left the planned third volume (P–Z) unpublished; the various iterations of Dictionary of American Slang, from Wentworth & Flexner's 1960 first edition to Kipfer & Chapman's 2007 fourth edition, are also good. For British slang, Eric Partridge's Slang & Unconventional English is very useful. A more recent (and exhaustive) option is Jonathon Green's multivolume slang dictionary, although I have only his shorter Chambers Slang Dictionary, which is pretty reliable and quite good. Many other sources are worth checking as well. – Sven Yargs Feb 26 at 9:08

There have been two very good and useful good pieces of research user66974 and Sven Yorg and Christine, who asked the question in the first place. I just have a point of two to add, in case they are useful.

The origin of this expression go back, via old English to Saxon and the Teutonic family of languages, as Etymonline itself makes clear. I suggest we start with the noun (though whether a word starts from noun or verb is difficult to determine). It means

Old English stemn, stefn "stem of a plant, trunk of a tree," also "either end-post of a ship," from Proto-Germanic *stamniz (source also of Old Saxon stamm, Old Norse stafn "stem of a ship;" Danish stamme, Swedish stam "trunk of a tree;" Old High German stam, German Stamm), from suffixed form of PIE root *sta- "to stand, make or be firm."

It seems to me that the botanical meaning is more likely to precede the nautical than vice versa. It is very easy to see how (by an analogy) the 'stem' of a ship comes to be called after the stem of a plant (especially the trunk of a tree).

The citation for the first of the two meanings of the teutonic versions of the verb points to the Early to late 14C CE. The verb is given as

"to hold back," early 14c., from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse stemma "to stop, dam up; be stopped, abate," from Proto-Germanic *stamjan (source also of Swedish stämma, Old Saxon stemmian, Middle Dutch stemon, German stemmen "stop, resist, oppose"), from PIE root *stem- "to strike against something" (source also of Lithuanian stumiu, stumti "thrust, push"). Not connected to stem (n.). Related: Stemmed; stemming. Phrase to stem the tide is literally "to hold back the tide," but often is confused with stem (v.2) "make headway against."

I can imagine a good argument in favour of the nautical meaning as being the earlier. It is easy to see how the force of tides in the Baltic and North Seas were a major challenge for the seamen of those times. But how did the idea of 'holding back' a tide would get to connote 'making headway against it? It is so tempting to trace it back to the noun and its connection with the 'stem' of a ship. That is what makes the headway. But there is a reasonable pathway, at least, from the idea of stopping or 'overcoming' to making headway. It very tempting to think that the noun and verb must in some way be connected, and may well be.

But in the absence of more written evidence, this is probably as far as we can get.


All good: however I certainly must favour the origin being nautical and subsequent metaphorical use of the phrase that deviates from the idea of having to battle against the tide in order to attain a goal or reach a destination as being misunderstood or misused. Who can actually turn back the literal tide? Original meaning very much in use. For example, try making Lydney harbour (River Severn) from the safe channel a few minutes before the flow turns to ebb without "stemming the tide"

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