(Some observations on language in Charles Dickens’ American Notes.)
Shortly after landing at Boston, and installing himself at a “very excellent” hotel, the author encounters an unfamiliar turn of phrase:
“Dinner, if you please,” said I to the waiter.
“When?” said the waiter.
“As quick as possible,” said I.
“Right away?” said the waiter.
After a moment’s hesitation, I answered “No,” at hazard.
“Not right away?” cried the waiter, with an amount of surprise that made me start.
I looked at him doubtfully, and returned, “No; I would rather have it in this private room. I like it very much.”
At this, I really thought the waiter must have gone out of his mind: as I believe he would have done, but for the interposition of another man, who whispered in his ear, “Directly.”
“Well! and that’s a fact!” said the waiter, looking helplessly at me: “Right away.”
The expression right away is now so ubiquitous that it’s practically un-Googlable, like the or and. Answers.com asserts that,
This idiom uses right as an intensifier and away in the sense of “at once,” the latter usage dating from the 1500s and surviving only in such phrases as this one and fire away. It was first recorded in 1818.
No citation is given for the 1818 appearance. I assumed, from Dickens’ confusion, that right away originated in the States and took a while to spread overseas. But the correspondents of the journal Notes and Queries – “devoted principally to English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism” – in 1880 investigated the phrase in response to an enquiry by an English reader named “Hermentrude”:
This expression is so familiar to me that until this moment I was not aware there was anything peculiar about it. If Hermentrude lived in these parts she might hear it every hour of the day. “Now, then, children, run off right away to school”; “She has been crying right away”; “It rained right away till tea-time”; “He has been working right away.” Even now I do not see much wrong about it. I should say it means not so much immediately as earnestly, directly. I think many of these forms of expression are very old.
— R.R., Boston, Lincolnshire
This is good North Lincolnshire. “It’s taken root and it’ll grow right away”; “I’m mending [recovering] right away, thank you.” It does not mean immediately. The young lady behind the counter meant that the boy was going straight past and along the road.
— J.T.F., Winterton, Brigg
This expression is a very common one in Liverpool, and always means immediately. I have never heard it used in the sense of a long distance, which Hermentrude seems to think the correct meaning.
— J.Y.W. MacAllister
This expression has for generations been used all over the south-west of Ireland in the way in which the Yorkshire shop girl applied it. “Right away” in Munster = immediately.
— Mary Agnes Hickson
Although there seems to be some vagueness about its precise meaning, these testimonies suggest that the phrase originated in Ireland or the north of England and spread via emigration to the United States, where Dickens mistook it for an Americanism and introduced it to the wider British reading public.
Note this weird spelling in Dickens’ description of a voyage by steamer on the Potomac River:
I wake, of course, when we get under weigh, for there is a good deal of noise.
Of course, I leaped to the assumption that Dickens, being nearer the wellspring of “pure” English, must have known what he was talking about, and that our word underway had derived from this extinct sailor’s term. But like right away, this is another example of a phrase that doubled back on itself: under weigh, it turns out, evolved from underway via the convolutions of folk etymology.
From Michael Quinion’s terrific website World Wide Words (the Notes and Queries of our time):
What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us – among many other nautical expressions – the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. [...]
It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens [...]
It was still common as recently as the 1930s … but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.