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TWTS: When everyone is flying by the seats of their pants

We've been taking a look at some of the words that have been popping up in headlines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This week we thought we'd talk about the phrase "flying by the seat of our pants," since that's the state that so many of us find ourselves in during these unprecedented times.

For most of us, to fly by the seat of one's pants means to proceed without a plan or experience, to make due with instinct. Parents suddenly faced with homeschooling their children are the perfect example of this phrase.

This phrase comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from early airplanes. There wasn't much instrumentation in early airplanes, and pilots had to do some navigation by the feel of the plane. In other words, they relied on the feel of the sensations coming up through the seat of their pants. 

Go ahead and giggle. We did.

The phrase seems to have originated in the 1930s and was popularized in the coverage of the flight of a man named Douglas Corrigan who flew from the U.S. to Ireland in 1938.

Corrigan claimed that he was actually trying to fly from Brooklyn, NY to California. However, he had submitted a plan for a trans-Atlantic flight and was rejected, so it's not clear whether he actually went in the wrong direction or just claimed to do so.

Regardless, newspapers described Corrigan as an aviator who flies by the seat of his pants. The phrase took off from there -- no pun intended.

How are you flying by the seat of your pants these days? Let us know below, and let us know what other words and phrases you've been seeing in the headlines lately.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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