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The meaning and origin of the expression: Tide over

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Tide over

Meaning

Make a small allowance (of money, food etc.) last until stocks are replenished.

Origin

My attention was drawn to the little phrase 'tide over' on 'Meltdown Monday' - 15th September 2008, when Robert Peston, the BBC's Business Editor, posted this on his blog:

"As for the US central banking system, the Fed, it is endeavouring to minimise the damage to the financial system from these shocks by allowing securities firms to swap shares for short-term loans, to tied them over."

As is the norm with the BBC's audience, the 'tied over' misspelling produced a much more impassioned response than the chaos in the world's financial system. It may well have been merely a typo - 'e' and 'd' are next to each other on QWERTY keyboards after all. The correct spelling is of course 'tide over'. On reflection, 'tide over' doesn't seem any more intuitive than 'tied over'; so what is the origin of the phrase?

Tide over'Tiding over', that is, the eking out of a small stock until a larger supply arrives, doesn't at first sight appear to have any direct connection with tidal waters. That's because the meaning of this phrase has changed slightly over the years. The original 'tiding over' was a seafaring term and derives ultimately from 'tide' being synonymous with 'time'. The literal meaning was 'in the absence of wind to fill the sails, float with the tide'. This usage was recorded by the English seaman Captain John Smith. Smith is best known for his role in establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia. In addition to that achievement, he had more luck as a mariner than his namesake John Edward Smith, the master of the Titanic. His status as a sailing authority was established by his writing the influential sailor's manual A Sea Grammar, 1627, which includes this earliest known citation of 'tide over':

"To Tide ouer to a place, is to goe ouer with the Tide of ebbe or flood, and stop the contrary by anchoring till the next Tide."

That sense of tiding over, in which ships would tide over here and tide over there, was superseded by a 'coping with a short-term problem' meaning. This meaning drew on the imagery of ships floating over obstacles on a swelling tide. Our present figurative usage of that image was established by the early 19th century, as in the Earl of Dudley's Letters to the Bishop of Llandaff, 1821:

"I wish we may be able to tide over this difficulty."

See other Nautical Phrases.