“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?Email this Post