LINGUIST List 10.102

Fri Jan 22 1999

Sum: "to tide someone over"

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <jodylinguistlist.org>


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  1. Erica Hofmann Kencke, 'tide someone over'

Message 1: 'tide someone over'

Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 18:36:59 -0500 (EST)
From: Erica Hofmann Kencke <ehofmail.utexas.edu>
Subject: 'tide someone over'

On January 19th, I asked about the expression "to tide someone over,"
and was rewarded with a broad range of responses. Many thanks to all
of you who took the time to respond to my curiosity. The contributors
were:

Paul Baltes
Lynne Hewitt
Damon Allen Davison
William Morris
Robert Orr
Rebecca Larche Moreton
Susanne Gahl
Sean Witty
Geoffrey Sampson
Siobhan. Casson
Karen Courtenay
Carsten Sinner
Elaine Malkin
Norval Smith
Dan, who didn't give his surname


As I frequently got the same information from several people, I will
summarize the reponses without citing specific sources, except where
individuals were the alone in providing a specific piece of the
puzzle. My question was in three parts: 1) the geographic spead of
the expression, 2) its semantic range, and 3) why the word "tide" is
used. A summary of each follows:

1) Geographic range: all over the English-speaking world. It appears
in the Oxford English Dictionary. Gahl mentioned that she more
frequently heard the variant "to tie (sic) someone over." I, too,
have heard this, also in the US. It is probably a construction by
which a speaker "corrects" an incomprehensible idiom to a form that
seems to make more sense. Does "tie someone over" appear elsewhere in
the English speaking world, or is it a US invention?

2) Semantic range: many respondents said or implied that it more often
referred to money than food, but added that it could refer to any
need, real or imagined, but Baltes said it was probably originally
used for food, and has been extended to other areas. All agree that
it is a temporary measure to help someone through a difficult period.

3) And now the most interesting question: why "tide?"

Our current word "tide" comes from Old English "tiid" (long i) meaning
"time" or "season." From this source comes both our modern words
"time" and "tide" (tides were probably used as a measure of time...)
as well as the current but archaic -tide meaning a period of time or a
season, as in "Eastertide." One of its verbal meanings (according to
the Shorter Oxford) is "to carry as the tide does." Thus the
expression may come from the idea that boats stuck on a sandbar in the
harbour have to wait for high water to "tide them over," (Sampson)

One fascinating possibility is that the expression is related to the
word "tid-bit" which is "a small amount, eaten quickly." (Baltes)

Again, many thanks to all the contributors.

Erica Hofmann Kencke
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