Hauling out the origin of “overhaul”

“Trump overhauls campaign again,” ran many headlines after news this week that Donald Trump took on Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s chief executive. Let’s haul out the etymology of this overhaul, abuzz as it is in the political ether.

Loosening the ropes to run a tighter ship? “Schooner rigging.” Image by Scott Schopieray courtesy of freeimages.com.


As we see in many metaphorical extensions of words, overhaul originated as a nautical term. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of the verb in 1626, when Captain John Smith uses it in a kind of “sea grammar” for young sailors. Back then, to overhaul entailed slackening ropes. This required pulling, or hauling, them opposite to its hoisting, hence over. In this way, sailors could take apart the rigging, inspect it, and make any changes if necessary. (Trump likes to claim voting is “rigged,” but overhauling doesn’t address that kind of rigging.)

By the 1700s, such an examination, or overhaul, was being done to a variety of equipment and apparatus. By the 1900s, the overhaul metaphor had settled into its modern form: a “significant repair” or “revision,” said of engines, education systems, campaigns.  

And if we overhaul overhaul? Well, it’s functioning pretty well as it is, I’d say, but we can at least take it apart and give it a look-over. Over is Germanic in origin, related to words like uber and super, which share a common Indo-European root meaning the same, essentially (“over”). Its form in Old English was ofer, found in the oldest records of the tongue. 

Haul, attested by the late 1500s, is a variant of hale, hauled into English from the French and Germanic roots before it. No relation to “strong and healthy” hale, the meaning of this hale is “to fetch” or “draw.” Indo-European philologists suppose an even more basic sense of “to shout.” Not unlike the Swahili rallying cry we saw rooted in Harambe, we can imagine some ancient foreman shouting to his muscly crew when to heave, ho, and haul. 

Thanks to its “pulling,” haul has roped its way into many other usages, from hauling someone over the coals to a long haul on the road to bringing back a good haul of candy on Halloween. Overhauled or not, it’s now only 80 days to election day, so both campaigns will be hauling ass until then. Haul ass – another term born on the seas, this one as US Navy slang,  originally “get out,” during World War I.

m ∫ r ∫

2 thoughts on “Hauling out the origin of “overhaul”

  1. Dear John (there’s another one) Could you please do a job on the term “Stemmy” this a term for wanker in my town, Broken Hill NSW Australia. I believe that this word is not used inthis sense anywhere else. I love your website, Regards, Lee


  2. Wow I didn’t know so much thought could go into hauling! But the more you think about it, I guess that makes sense to have a lot of math and science involved. You don’t want anything tipping over or things like that. It has to be calculated well.


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