I understand that "Under the weather" means feeling sick. I heard a rumor that this idiom may have nautical origins, but I don't know for sure. Does anyone know more about the origin of this phrase, and when it entered common usage?

3 Answers 3


The Phrase finder provides an explanation of the origin:

: To be under the weather is to be unwell. This comes again from a maritime source. In the old days, when a sailor was unwell, he was sent down below to help his recovery, under the deck and away from the weather.

... Here's a similar one I found: "Under the weather. To feel ill. Originally it meant to feel seasick or to be adversely affected by bad weather. The term is correctly 'under the weather bow' which is a gloomy prospect; the weather bow is the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing." From "Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions" by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey (Sheridan House, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1995. First published in Great Britain, 1983).

Another site states that something similar:

Passengers aboard ships become seasick most frequently during times of rough seas and bad weather. Seasickness is caused by the constant rocking motion of the ship. Sick passengers go below deck, which provides shelter from the weather, but just as importantly the sway is not as great below deck, low on the ship.

In both cases, we have two things in common. One, is its origin came from sea travel, when people felt ill due to several reasons, and the other thing in common, is that they both cited the fact that the persons feeling unwell went below deck.

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    Does this make "In ship shape" the antonym?
    – Zoot
    Sep 7, 2011 at 21:29
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    Not necessarily. "Under the weather" means you are feeling unwell, that is physically. "Ship-shape" means that everything is going fine for you, and that could include your health. But "ship-shape" doesn't apply specifically to health, it has a broader range. So, it depends on the context
    – Thursagen
    Sep 7, 2011 at 21:32
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    @FumbleFingers: Agree. All shipshape and seaworthy. Abstract or tangible objects, but rarely (if ever) animate ones.
    – Jimi Oke
    Sep 7, 2011 at 21:54
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    ngrams.googlelabs.com/… Looks like both "all shipshape" and "in shipshape" are used about the same amount over the last 200 years.
    – Zoot
    Sep 8, 2011 at 13:51
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    I'm skeptical of all this. The "weather bow" would be the front of the vessel, on the windward side; being "under" (and a sailor would say "below") it would neither help nor hurt. A ship is relatively rigid; it sways pretty much the same amount everywhere. Going below decks would make your motion-sickness worse, not better; you are best off in the fresh air and watching the horizon. Feb 17, 2015 at 12:42

I would suggest that "Salty Dog Talk" has misrepresented the phrase, which should be "under the weather rail," which is where tired (or ill) sailors would stow themselves to get some rest, as documented in Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana (available online for perusal). There is no such thing as a "weather bow," as the bow is the front of the ship (or boat). As well, the bow of a heaving ship is the worst place to be, if one is feeling "under the weather."


I agree with @Greybeard and @colt4x5 that the ship etymology feels a bit far-fetched. “Under the weather rail” seems still more plausible, but I couldn’t find any attestations of “feeling” “under the weather rail” or like expressions. It makes it hard to imagine that “under the weather” is merely a shortening.

There are some early attestations of “under the weather” in Beyond These Voices (1800) and a Rose v. Hotel New Yorker Supreme Court case (1811). There aren’t enough early attestations of “under the weather rail” to link them, I don’t think. They don’t seem to correlate, anyway.

Perhaps we should look at related expressions like “under the gun”, “under the pump”, or “under the influence of XYZ”. I think @Greybeard was hinting at this but didn’t quite state it: What if we assume that “under the weather” simply means to be feeling the ill effects of the weather? If bad weather continues for a time, your mood and health may naturally be influenced by it. You could be put in low spirits or you could catch cold. If we must bring a ship into this, surely the same applies to the crew on a ship who have been exposed to bad weather for a time. They certainly won’t be feeling their best.

To support this, I would note that Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary puts “under the weather” with the “atmospheric conditions” definition of weather rather than the “side a ship exposes to the wind” definition.

Stress of weather: violent winds; force of tempests. — To make fair weather: to flatter; to give flattering representations. [R.] — To make good, or bad, weather (Naut.): to endure a gale well or ill; — said of a vessel. Shak. — Under the weather: ill; also, financially embarrassed. [Colloq. U. S.] Bartlett.

  • Hello, Jerry. The Grammarist reference that attests that 'under the weather rail' was the original also says that this would include going below deck. // Note that The Phrase Finder reference includes other reasonable references, one of which uses 'the weather bow' for 'the side of the ship away from the weather'. See Carter. It looks like an unfortunate case of conflicting senses. Jun 7, 2022 at 19:09
  • @EdwinAshworth I guess I’m concerned about the logical viability of these options. It sounds like the best place on a ship to be during the storm is in the middle on a lower deck where the swaying would be the least. How should being “under the weather rail” be much better than being “under the lee rail”, etc. Granted I’m not a sailor. Jun 13, 2022 at 16:56
  • I’m not sure where I see “the weather bow is the side of the ship away from the weather.” A ship has one bow and I assume that phrase to mean the half of the bow that is toward the wind. Also: One advantage to being on the weather side of the ship vs the lee side is that a ship will capsize leeward in most situations, so it is probably the safest side to be on. Will it make you the least sick though, I’m doubtful. See illustration: withapast.com/products/don-swann-etching-lee-rail-under Jun 13, 2022 at 17:00

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