Helmer at the helm

Posted by on February 20, 2012

“I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea.”

The old nautical word helm is likely to evoke a salty sea image such as one from Herman Melville’s mighty Moby-Dick – that is, of a wheel or similar gear used to steer a boat or ship. A helmswoman or helmsman handles this duty, and if their helmsmanship measures up they will know how to up helm, down helm, and perform other helm-based manoeuvres.

Inevitably, the word has developed metaphorical uses. At the helm means in charge, and you can be at the helm of a government, business, sports team, film production, and so on. Words such as steer, saddle, and pilot have broadened similarly, from navigation and transport to more figurative senses: a steering group could be in the saddle guiding the direction of a pilot project.

Browsing COHA, I found many instances of helm relating to sailing, but no shortage of other examples: “O! be my helm, my guide, my firm support!” (Alexis, the Czarewitz, 1812); “to stand by the helm of state during the great convulsion” (US Democratic Review, 1838); and more recently: “take the helm of the development bank” (Washington Post, 2005); “Harvard, MIT, and Princeton currently have women at the helm” (Foreign Affairs, 2007).

Helm is also a verb meaning steer, direct, or take the helm, so we sometimes see the forms helming, helmed, and helmer. Helmer in particular interests me. Most commonly it appears as a surname, but in US English it has become a synonym for film (or TV) director. I see this usage especially in film reviews and reporting, for example in The Hollywood Reporter (“the helmer’s 1978 horror classic”) and Variety (“the helmer switches to color”).

Indeed, Variety.com’s search function treats helmer and director interchangeably, and also shows how frequently the word is used. In the US media, that is: the UK press have yet to adopt it outright, though the Guardian’s film blog has noted it both as a “bastardisation” and as straightforward slang, while the BBC has used it in a couple of film articles that unfussily employ the playful jargon of movie news (“Chicago helmer”; “Mock-doc helmer”).

The Time magazine corpus has just 31 helmers: 28 are proper names and are duly capitalised, and the remaining three – “Waterworld helmer”, “X-Men helmer” and “Moulin Rouge helmer” – show the newer use. The OED says helmer meaning film director arose from the verb form helm = direct (a film), and that it is a late-20th-century usage from north America.

I have nothing against this helmer, but I’m not quite used to it yet and it tends to make me think of Elmer Fudd and Helmann’s mayonnaise. Have you come across it? How does it strike you?

Comments (6)
  • Stan:
    It puts me in mind of that oft-repeated quotation: “I am the captain of my fate/And the helmer of my soul.”

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 20th February, 2012
  • Marc: They sound like the last lines in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:
    “I am the captain of my fate:
    I am the master of my soul.”

    Posted by Stan on 20th February, 2012
  • Charming article, Stan. To answer your last two questions; I’m very familiar with “helmer” as a movie industry synonym for “director”, so it not longer strikes me as odd (though it did the first time I came across it). You’re quite right to note its frequency in the US trade magazine Variety. As I’m sure you know (but some of your readers may not, so I’ll say it anyway), Variety has used its own private slanguage, in its reports from the frontlines of the movie industry, for over a century. It is an internally consistent version of English that reads like the snappy, jazzy dialogue in a Howard Hawks script. Many of these subtle new words (or new uses of old words) deserve wider use. When a helmer ankles a pic, the verb “ankle” (meaning, to walk away from) usefully blurs the distinction between quitting and being fired.

    There’s a fine guide to Variety’s in-house language over on their website:
    http://www.variety.com/static-pages/slanguage-dictionary/

    Sample entry:

    “nix — reject, say no to; as in the famous Variety headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” meaning that audiences in rural areas were not interested in attending films about rural life.”

    Well worth an article some time, if you haven’t done one already.

    Posted by Julian Gough on 20th February, 2012
  • Thanks for your contribution, Julian. It was in Variety that I first saw helmer = director, and it’s where I tended to see the usage subsequently, but I didn’t know if that’s where the word originated. Andrew Pulver’s Guardian article on Varietyspeak tipped me off about the glossary, but I didn’t read it all yet. Must do so later. “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” is a superb headline!

    Posted by Stan on 21st February, 2012
  • Apparently the meaning of “helmer” as slang is “internet troll” as given in the urban dictionary.

    Posted by Avy on 21st February, 2012
  • Avy: Ah, so it is. Whether true or not, this is an interesting note: “An inside joke of the Helmer is to use the word Helmer in the username, signature or avatar. It’s a reference to the infamous ‘Helmer mass banning’ that occurred on the My Little Pony forum in 2004.”

    Posted by Stan on 21st February, 2012
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