Has someone ever told you they were feeling under the weather? Did you know what they meant? If you were confused, you wouldn’t be alone. Under the weather is an idiomatic expression, which means that all three words taken together have an entirely different definition than the individual words themselves. Keep reading to learn the meaning and origins of this popular phrase, as well as much more about idioms.
How is “Under the Weather” typically used?
If someone says they’re feeling under the weather, they mean that they’re feeling slightly sick or ill. Typically, someone will use this expression when they’re mildly unwell—such as when they have a cold, allergies, or the flu—and not when they’re suffering from a serious disease. Someone may also use the expression to convey that they’re feeling a little bit down or sad; in other words, that they’re feeling mentally unwell but not necessarily physically ill. Less commonly, the phrase is used when a person is drunk or experiencing a hangover and feeling the negative effects of being intoxicated. Often, the phrase is given as a reason or excuse why someone can’t do something.
Here are some example sentences using the idiomatic phrase under the weather:
I need to miss work today, Jim, as I’m feeling under the weather.
Mary caught a cold and told me she won’t be able to make it to book club while
she’s feeling so under the weather.
I had a long, hard, stressful day at work and it has made me feel under the
We went out to celebrate Tod’s birthday last night and partied a bit too hard, so
today we’re all feeling a tad under the weather.
The Origins of the Phrase Under the Weather
One theory holds that this phrase has nautical origins, dating back to the early 1800s. The story goes that when sailors or other passengers on a ship (traveling by boat was quite popular then) felt sick, they would go below deck to feel better and recover. Very often, they felt ill because they were seasick. Seasickness is typically due to bad weather, which churns up rough waves that cause a ship to rock back and forth. Perhaps the rocking was less noticeable to these passengers below deck, or perhaps they just retreated there to escape the bad weather in general. Either way, there’s a strong possibility that sailors and ship passengers going under the deck and thus out of the stormy conditions led to the phrase under the weather and the meaning we most associate with this expression today.
According to sources such as the book Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions, it’s possible the phrase originally ended with the term bow––as in, under the weather bow. The bow is the front part of a boat. In this instance, though, the authors of the book, Bill Beavis and Richard McCloskey, say that bow was used to describe the side of the ship that bore the brunt of the bad weather. It’s also possible the original phrase was actually under the weather rail, with the weather rail being a specific location on the ship that was the most stable or spared the most from rocking during turbulent weather. In either case, over time the phrase was shortened to under the weather.
It’s also possible that the expression originated simply because weather can have such a profound effect on health. For example, hot weather can cause heat stroke, while cold weather can cause hypothermia. It’s also the time of year for flu season. Not to mention, many people find that their arthritis flares up or they get headaches with weather changes.
Synonyms for Under the Weather
If you want to share that you’re feeling unwell or down in the dumps, there are a variety of words and phrases, including other idioms, you can use. The following options are synonyms or near synonyms (meaning they have a similar but not identical definition) for under the weather. A thesaurus, English dictionary, or idioms dictionary can provide you with additional choices.
- Out of sorts
- Not so hot / not feeling so hot
- In a bad way
- Sick as a dog
- Laid up
An idiom is an expression that’s intended meaning can’t be fully understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Most of the time, you need to know the figurative meaning outright in order to make sense of the expression.
Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Taken literally, under the weather might be understood to mean that a person is standing outside in the rain, perhaps with an umbrella over their head. But you now know the phrase is meant figuratively when written or spoken and conveys that someone is feeling slightly sick or unwell, either physically or mentally.
More Common Weather Idioms
There are an estimated 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language, and many of them have to do with weather or use weather terms to get their message across. Let’s look at just a few other popular weather idioms and their figurative meanings.
Right as rain. This idiom is actually an antonym to under the weather. It means in good health, or in good working order. In other words, if something is right as rain, it either feels or works as it should. The expression is most often written or said with as preceding it. Example sentence: Tim was under the weather, but after a round of antibiotics, he’s as right as rain.
Get wind of. To get wind of something is to hear or otherwise become aware of it––to learn new information you did not previously know. It’s often used in regards to a secret or rumor. Example sentence: My friends are acting sneaky, because they don’t want me to get wind of what they have planned for my birthday.
On cloud nine. If someone is on cloud nine, they’re very, very happy; they’re feeling euphoric and blissfully content. Example sentence: I was on cloud nine on my wedding day.
Raining cats and dogs. No, this idiomatic expression doesn’t mean that cats and dogs are falling down from the sky! It simply means that it’s raining extremely heavily. Example sentence: It was raining cats and dogs this morning; even a raincoat and umbrella couldn’t keep me dry!
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