There are two common misnomers concerning this expression. First, many people tend to believe that it is “anchors away,” possibly indicating throwing the anchors overboard a ship at landing. Secondly, it is easy to assume the origin was in the Navy, possibly with the composition of the famous official U.S. Navy song, “Anchors Aweigh” in 1906, music by Charles Zimmerman and lyrics by Alfred Hart Miles, published in Cincinnati in 1907.
Actually, the term is correctly spelled “aweigh,” and said as the anchors are being hoisted aboard in preparation of a ship’s departure, not arrival at port. Some still cling to the spelling of “away,” primarily because the earliest record a form of the term had it that way, in Capt. John Smith’s “A Sea Grammar,” Jamestown, Virginia Colony, 1627: “What is the Anchor away?”
The true meaning had to do with weighing the anchors; thus, that was incorrect.
An anchor “aweigh” is one which has begun to put weight on the ropes by which it is hoisted aboard the ship. Other such sea terms include astern, aboard, afloat, aground and adrift. At first, such expressions were either hyphenated or two separate words. In fact, in 1887, British Admiral William Henry Smyth recognized these facts in his nautical dictionary titled “The Sailor’s Word-Book.”
“The anchor is a-trip, or a-weigh, where the purchase has just made it break ground, or raised it clear. Sails are a-trip when they are hoisted from the cap (a thick block of wood), sheeted home, and ready for trimming …”
Even in the 17th century, however, John Dryden’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” 1670, Act I, corrected the spelling:
“Trincalo: Is the Anchor a Peek?
“Stephano: Is a weigh! Is a weigh.”
Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at (931) 212-3303 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.