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Safe harbour / Safe haven

Q From Claudia Clark: Please comment on the over-used redundant safe harbor.

A It’s an interesting example of the way language evolves, as is the closely similar and even more popular safe haven.

Your dislike of it, I presume, is based on the etymological history of harbour, which comes from the Old English herebeorg for a shelter or refuge. It’s not unreasonable to argue that harbours and havens are intrinsically safe, which would make the expression tautologous. However, as so often, matters aren’t that simple.

The earliest sense of harbour in English — in the twelfth century — was of shelter from the elements, which might be an inn or other lodgings. (A cold harbour was a wayside refuge for travellers overtaken by bad weather.) It took another century before it began to be applied to a place where ships might shelter. The verb went through much the same developments. (The sense of sheltering or concealing a fugitive came along only in the fifteenth century.) Haven is slightly older and comes from a different Old English source. Its development is the opposite of harbour — the ship sense came first and the land-based place of shelter evolved from it.

Later on, the concept of safety originally explicit in both haven and harbour became to a significant extent separated from that of the physical place in which ships could dock or lie at anchor. And, of course, you could have good harbours or poor ones. As a result, English speakers began to attach adjectives to both words to show their judgement of the value of a particular anchorage or port. By the seventeenth century safe harbour was being used to describe one with the needful security. The Oxford English Dictionary has an example from 1699 in A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris by the classicist Richard Bentley: “She must not make to the next safe Harbour; but ... bear away for the remotest.”

Both expressions soon began to be used figuratively. It’s hard to be sure quite when, because some early examples aren’t sufficiently clear in their meaning. But, for example, this appears in Tobias Smollett’s History of England in 1758: “At length, however, it [a parliamentary bill] was floated through both houses on the tide of a great majority, and steered into the safe harbour of royal approbation.”

We retain the idea of a harbour or a haven being a place of safety and security. But a harbour that’s safe from the elements is not always a safe harbour politically, for example in time of war. In the law of the sea, a safe haven is a port in which a ship that is damaged or threatened by the weather may take refuge no matter what its nationality (the alternative port of refuge is now also common).

As a development in legal terminology, in the United States — and possibly other countries — safe harbor means some procedure that affords protection from liability or penalty if followed.

Because of these specialised usages, safe haven has extended senses that means it cannot be said to be a tautology. Beyond that, in general usage, the compounds safe harbour and safe haven have been used for so long that they have achieved the status of fixed phrases. Phrases, in fact, so firmly fixed in our minds that to rail against them is pointless.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Jan. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 January 2008.