Asea / At sea

Four-letter word for a small, damp foul.

Dear Word Detective: Crossword puzzle editors seem to have their favorite words that get used over and over. “Anon,” “ewer,” and “Tso” (“General on a Chinese menu”) are a few. One other frequently used word for “confused” is “asea.” Searching on-line only gets me “at sea” or “on the sea.” Was there a time that wanting to go to sea meant you were confused, or worse? (I would think that the navies of the world would object to such usage. Was it started by the Army or Air Force?) — Smitty.

Oh boy, crossword puzzles. I said a few years ago that I don’t do crossword puzzles, which is true, because I don’t like crossword puzzles, which is not precisely true. I don’t enjoy doing the puzzle myself, but I’m happy as a clam to have someone ask me for words. I guess it’s because I don’t have a horse in the race (and can just say “beats me” when I feel like it). But there’s something about actually seeing all those blank spaces that fills me with anxiety and dread. And there’s nothing sadder than getting on a train, finding a half-done, tear-stained crossword puzzle on your seat, and knowing there’s some lost soul out there standing on a bridge, racking his tortured noggin for a seven-letter word meaning “Himalayan gem.” What a waste.

I have also come to feel a wariness, justified by experience, toward crossword puzzle clues and their makers. I don’t trust them. Take the clue you mention, “confused,” which is intended to elicit the answer “asea,” presumably accompanied by a chorus of onlookers exclaiming “Of course!” The first problem is that the word is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), properly spelled “a-sea.” Note the hyphen, which appears in the only two print citations listed in the OED (from 1858 and 1878). (Not a popular word, that “a-sea.” One might even call it perversely obscure, a tactic to which General Tso would never stoop.)

Perhaps a hyphen is impractical in a crossword, so we’ll let “asea” slide on that score. But a bigger problem is that nowhere in the definition of “a-sea,” in either the OED or the Merriam-Webster Third International Unabridged Dictionary, does “confused” or anything like it appear. “A-sea” is defined as meaning simply “on the sea” or “toward the sea” (“We stood looking a-sea,” 1878), and is simply “sea” plus the obsolete prefix “a,” meaning “towards” or “on” (also preserved in “afield,” “abed,” “ashore,” etc.). There is no history of “a-sea” or “asea” being used figuratively in any sense.

My guess is that the creator of that crossword puzzle was actually thinking of the expression “at sea” or “all at sea,” an idiom which has been in use since the mid-18th century and is defined by the OED as meaning “In a state of mind resembling the condition of a ship which is out of sight of land and has lost her bearings; in a state of uncertainty or perplexity, at a loss.” This is an extremely popular idiom (“She was so plainly at sea on this part of the case … that Clennam was much disposed to regard the appearance as a dream,” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1857), and would make an excellent crossword answer.

But “at sea” (and certainly “all at sea”) didn’t fit, so the puzzle-maker decided that, since “at sea” and “asea” both meant “on the sea,” they must also both mean “disoriented, confused.” But they don’t, not judging by the actual history of “a-sea.” It’s not a big deal, but it seems like a fudge and it really isn’t cricket. “A-sea” is already obscure, no one stumbling across it would assume it has that figurative meaning, and if major dictionaries don’t include that definition, it really doesn’t belong in a puzzle.

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