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TWTS: Tiding over a pandemic

Tides rise and fall. Believe it or not, we can tie tides to the discussions of loans and toilet paper during this strange time, when so many of us are being asked to stay at home.

A listener named Therese Marz recently sent us this question: "I have heard people say that they make sure they have enough food or other supplies to 'tide them over' while other people hope that they have enough to 'tie them over.' Are my ears bad? Are there different terms?"

Therese, your ears are just fine. Historically, the phrase is "tide over" as opposed to "tie over," and it's most commonly used in association with food and money.

The meaning of "tide over" is to help someone through a difficult period or until relief is available, generally through a temporary measure. This phrase been turning up in coverage of COVID-19, like in this headline: "Companies in Australia, New Zealand raised nearly $13.5 billion to tide over coronavirus crisis." Or perhaps you've heard people talking about the possibility of coronavirus treatment options tiding us over until there's a vaccine.

As you may have guessed, "tide over" comes from boats and the sea. Think about, for example, a boat that's stuck on a sandbar and needs the tide, the high water to carry it into the harbor. Or think of a boat that can't sail without wind, so it's riding the tide.

The metaphorical meaning of "tide over" shows up in the 1800s. However, before that, you can find the noun “tide” used as a metaphor, as in this example from Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar:” "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

In other words, watch for that high tide and ride it. What's tiding you over during the pandemic?

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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