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Feeling 'Under the Weather'?

FILE - A fan sitting in the rain during a long rain delay sneezes before the start of a baseball game between the Florida Marlins and New York Mets at Citi Field, New York, Monday, May 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)
Feeling 'Under the Weather'?
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And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

On this program, we explore words and phrases in American English. We teach you how to use them in different situations. And sometimes we explain where these terms come from.

Today, we talk about feeling sick. We have all felt sick at some point in our lives. And our condition can go from one extreme to the other. If I am very sick, you could say I am as sick as a dog. Other times I may feel good enough to go to work, but still not great.

When I feel tired, worn out or just a little sick, I can say I am feeling under the weather.

This is probably the simplest, most common way to say, “I don’t feel well.” In fact, I could not think of another phrase that expresses the same meaning as well as “under the weather” does.

When you are under the weather, your condition is not serious. You do not need to be in a hospital or see a doctor.

Some word experts say that “under the weather” also can mean feeling drunk or having a hangover. You have too much alcohol to drink one night and the next day, you feel sick.

However, I have never heard the idiom used this way. So, I asked several native English speakers, and not one said they use “under the weather” to mean hungover or drunk. When I hear someone say they are under the weather, I imagine they are not feeling well, but nothing else.

Use it anytime!

On this program, I hardly ever use the word “always,” but it is always acceptable to use this expression when speaking with others. Feel free to tell your co-workers, your best friend or even your 90-year-old grandmother that you are “under the weather.”

We will give more examples after we learn where this expression comes from. So don’t go away!


Now, bad weather can affect your health. For example, if I’m caught in a cold rainstorm for several hours without proper protection, I very possibly will get sick. But why do we say under the weather when we’re sick? That just sounds strange.

To find out, I turned to a publication called Farmers’ Almanac. Farmers’ Almanac is not really meant for language learners. It was founded in 1818 to help American farmers understand more about the natural world around them as they grow and harvest their crops. That is still its purpose today.

The Farmer’s Almanac website tells about all things weather-related – from average snowfall totals to phases of the moon to advice for fishing on a rainy day. So, if an idiom is weather-related, it probably will be explained in the Farmer’s Almanac!

To explain, “under the weather,” the website published the writing of Richard Lederer, a word expert. Lederer notes that the expression “under the weather” comes from the language of sailors.

Esha Serai travels along as some girls from South Carolina go on a confidence-building trip on board a sailing ship.
Esha Serai travels along as some girls from South Carolina go on a confidence-building trip on board a sailing ship.

Imagine being on a boat on rough seas. The waves continually force the boat up and down and side to side. This continual movement can make many people feel seasick.

He writes that “on the high seas when the wind would start to blow hard and the waves became rough, crewmen and travelers would go below deck.” They actually went “under the weather” to find safety, shelter and to avoid becoming seasick.

Years ago, only sailors described seasick sailors as being “under the weather.” But today, we use this expression anytime someone is not feeling well.

Now, let me use this phrase in a few sentences.

I just can’t go out tonight. I am feeling under the weather. But thanks for the invite.

After standing outside in the cold rain waiting to buy concert tickets, the young woman awoke the next day feeling under the weather.

If you feel under the weather, you should really go home and rest.

And that is all the time we have this week for Words and Their Stories! Join us again next time when we explore another word or expression in American English.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Cause I’m under the weather
Just like the world
So sorry for being so bold
When I turn out the light
You’re out of sight
Although I know that I’m not alone
It feels like home…

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is KT Tunstall singing “Under the Weather.”


Words in This Story

drunk adj. a period of time when someone drinks too much alcohol

hungover adj. disagreeable physical effects following heavy consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs

idiom n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

wave n. an area of moving water that is raised above the main surface of an ocean, a lake, etc

deck n. a flat surface that forms the main outside floor of a boat or ship

concert n. a public performance (as of music or dancing)

ticket n. a piece of paper that allows you to see a show, participate in an event, travel on a vehicle, etc.

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