Mind your language

Are we overusing ‘overhaul’?

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

Last week, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer were overhauling their stores. Football clubs were madly overhauling teams and we women were overhauling wardrobes, if you can believe what you read in the papers. There was a clear danger of over overhauling.

What do we mean by it? Overhaulingimplies change. But that sense has only dominated in the past 150 years. Before that, the usual meaning was to inspect or audit, in a naval context.

‘To-day I over-haul’d the Powder, and told the Lieutenant that I had twenty-three half Barrels in Store,’ wrote the Royal Navy gunner John Bulkeley in 1740. His ship, the Wager, was wrecked in remote Chile, with 140 of her people surviving. By the time another 40 had died, the men had lost confidence in the captain, David Cheap. Eighty-one set out in the long boat for Argentina, under Bulkeley’s leadership, with most of those gunpowder barrels wisely refilled with drinking water. Thirty made it alive.


Cheap got back to England separately (accompanied by the midshipman John Byron, who became the poet’s grandfather) to find that Bulkeley had published a bestselling account of the affair. But Cheap took a new command, and captured a prize that made him a rich man.

Figurative overhauling came from the literal overhauling of slackening a rope by pulling in the opposite direction to that in which it is drawn in hoisting. In this way the blocks of a tackle may be released and separated. ‘Hawle off your ley sheats, ouerhawle the ley bowlin, ease your mayne brases,’ wrote John Smith, sounding like an extra from Mutiny on the Bounty, in his Accidence or grammar for young seamen, in 1626.

Nautical matters attracted word-books just as heraldry or hawking did. William Falconer kept overhauling his poem ‘The Shipwreck’ to include more and more technical terms from 1762 to a third edition in 1769 when he had been lost at sea.

Overhaul derives from haul. Haulis just a variant spelling of hale, which survives in regional English. In Scotland, sweat still hales down cheeks and in the Philippines people are haled (not hauled) before courts.

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