O Captain, My Captain!

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Cathy poses this question:

Is the proper use of helm “at the helm” or “under the helm?”

She gives this example of the use of the latter:

The tennis team, under the helm of second-year head coach John Doe, advanced to the championship round.

What we have here is the decomposition of a dead metaphor.

The word helm has more than one meaning in English, but in the context of leadership it derives from a metaphorical use of this definition:

helm: the handle or tiller, in large ships the wheel, by which the rudder is managed.”

The mariner guiding the ship stands at the helm.

Metaphorically, anyone in charge of an endeavor is at the helm.

The word can also be used as a verb:

Early “talkies” were helmed by producers who had learned their trade with silent films.

A new coach takes the helm. If the team he has been hired to lead is under the helm, the players must be lying about on the deck.

However…

A search of under the helm brought two million Google hits. Clearly a lot of writers are using the expression.

To answer the reader’s question, at the helm is the “proper” version, but the wide use of under the helm may signal a new incarnation of a dead metaphor. Helm may be taking on the new definition of “leadership.”

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6 Responses to “O Captain, My Captain!”

  • Brad K.

    Another “helm” is an alternate word for helmet, that is, protective head gear. But “under the helmet” would be similar to under the cap, under the hat, under the toupee – the ideas, the intelligence, or the experience within the head of the wearer of the helm(et). Which would still not be a correct application to someone under the guidance of the coach.

    The closes one might be would be “in the thoughts” of the coach, but that would impact only the coach, not those being guided and trained.

    In the Navy there were those trained individuals assigned to stand the helm watch – for assigned hours, steer the ship where the Officer of the Deck directed, according to the skills of the navigator and needs of the ship’s mission. And, of course, the ship doesn’t go where the Captain doesn’t steer, metaphorically speaking.

    As for the two million hits – when I checked, the first five contained “under the helm” but the next five were “at the helm” or variations. The fourth “under the helm” should have been “under the gun” – an individual expected to meet unrealistic expectations. The overuse of this flawed word picture may not be as extensive as it first appears.

    I get the sense that “under the helm” refers to the vessel, items, or group being steered, while “at the helm” describes the one doing the steering.

  • Herman Tulleken

    With quotes, I get about 131 000 entries for “under the helm” (so no variations), so I think you are right Brad.

  • Guy Andrew Hall

    Actually, under the helm makes sense, if the sentence is in reference to the team, with the coach being mentioned.

    A ship is under the helm of a Captain.

    The Captain is at the helm.

    It’s all a matter of subject.

  • Kharma

    I would have agreed with the blog and the use of “at the helm” until I read Brad’s response. I have to agree with Brad’s final statement, “under the helm” refers to the group being steered and “at the helm” refers to the one doing the steering. If we are correct, then the original example of the tennis team is acceptable.

  • Ade

    As a professional sailor I can say that beyond any shadow of a doubt that the proper usage is “at the helm.” No one is ever “under the helm,” nautically speaking. Passengers or crew or other persons, etc., would not be under the helm of someone at the helm. They’d be under the command, mayhap, or at the mercy of the helmsman, depending on conditions.

  • Brad K.

    Kharma, my comment was about how the phrase “under the helm” seemed to be used – I assume that it is incorrectly contrived. That is, the expression “under the helm” is meaningless as an expression of English. I would consider the above example of the tennis team as being consistent, but I question that this phrase is correct, or could possibly be used correctly – except where “under the helm” is a specific adaptation of “under his hat” – a secret held close, disseminated no further than the author’s thoughts.

    The maritime and Navy role of “captain” is a surprisingly strong authority figure. Anyone that has encountered the junior Army officer of “captain” might be confused as to the relative scope of jurisdiction. A naval or maritime captain routinely operates outside the purview of higher authority; a military junior officer of ‘captain’ exercises a direct authority over the men and facilities assigned to him, yet his authority is limited because routinely he will be operating as part of a larger group, with superiors and supervision often available.

    I suppose it is possible for someone to be horribly confused, and think that “helm” is what a maritime or naval captain does. In that context, the tennis team being “under the command” of the coach implies a direct relationship between team members and an authoritarian coach, where the coach has the latitude and practice of operating without close supervision of his practices and techniques. The authority of the coach would be “undiluted” by limiting rules or reviews.

    And I still think “under the helm” is inappropriate and lacks authority. It seems more like a mistake than an explanation.

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