O Captain, My Captain!
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.
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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