Know your English: What is the meaning and origin of ‘plain sailing’?

October 28, 2013 11:38 pm | Updated November 16, 2021 07:40 pm IST

What is the meaning and origin of ‘plain sailing’?

(L Shravanthi, Pune)

The expression is mostly used in informal contexts to mean ‘smooth and easy progress’. When you say that something was plain sailing, you mean things went off without a hitch; there were no problems or obstructions of any kind along the way. 'Clear sailing' and 'smooth sailing' mean the same thing.

*Your first few months on the job will not be plain sailing.

This relatively old idiom comes from the world of navigation. In the past, in order to determine distance, calculations were made based on the assumption that the earth was flat and not spherical. To make calculations simple, sailors assumed that the ship was sailing on a flat or a ‘plane surface’.

The original expression was, in fact, ‘plane sailing’. Since spelling had not been standardised, the two words ‘plain’ and ‘plane’ were used interchangeably. When the expression made its first appearance in print in the 17th century, the word was spelt ‘plain’ instead of ‘plane’ — and everyone followed suit.

The idiom acquired its figurative meaning — slow and easy progress — over a period of time.

How is the word ‘finesse’ pronounced?

(J Baskar, Trichy)

The first syllable ‘fi’ is like the ‘fi’ in ‘fit’, ‘fill’ and ‘fist’, and the following ‘nesse’ is like the ‘nes’ in ‘nest’. The word is pronounced ‘fi-NES’ with the stress on the second syllable.

Someone who has ‘finesse’ displays grace under pressure; the individual exhibits a lot of skill in handling people in delicate or difficult situations. It can also be used to refer to someone’s graceful or elegant movements. The word can be used as a verb to mean to slyly or delicately manage to do something — for example avoid getting blamed. In Old French, ‘fin’ meant ‘subtle’ or ‘delicate’.

*We must try to finesse our way out of this boring party.

What is the difference between ‘crowd in’ and ‘crowd around’?

(S Jayanthi, Chennai)

When people ‘crowd around’ someone or something, they surround the person or thing; they may not actually touch the individual, but they are all around him. The person being surrounded gets the feeling that there are just too many people around him.

*When the children spotted Tendulkar, they immediately crowded around him.

‘Crowd in’, on the other hand, suggests there is some amount of pushing and pulling. There are too many people, and as a result, the space becomes so cramped that people actually press against each other. They have the feeling that they are being smothered.

*The star told his fans that he didn’t like being crowded in.

Is there a word to refer to people of the same age?

(Mohan Rao, Hubli)

Yes, there is. The word that is sometimes used to refer to people of the same age or about the same age is ‘agemate’.

*Vasantha had no agemate in the colony she was living in.


“Overpopulation: when people take leave of their census.”Malcom K Jeffrey

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