Q From Kathleen Zimmermann: Could you please clear up a disagreement my husband and I are having regarding the proper usage of the phrases to tie you over versus to tide you over?
A You don’t say which of you is on the side of which version, so I don’t know whether it is you or your husband who is going to be disappointed when I say that the true form is to tide one over. In some slight defence of to tie one over, it is becoming more common, but it is a folk etymology (read “error” if you prefer) that has grown up because the word tide here seems to make no sense.
The phrase means that something — especially money — will see one through a difficult period and keep one going until things improve. An example from the Daily Telegraph from 31 August 2002: “As well as putting money aside, which can be used to tide him over when he returns from his post in Antarctica, Mr Bursnall can begin to build up a deposit for a flat”.
The idea is that of the swelling tide, which will carry you over some obstacle, with the implication that it won’t require effort on your part. It may be that it’s a deliberate echo of Brutus’s comment, in Julius Caesar: “There is a Tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the Flood, leads on to Fortune”, or it may at least be taken from the same idea of a ship, say, waiting for the tide to rise and carry it over the bar into a harbour.
Perhaps oddly for an expression that concerns something so basic and immemorial, the phrase is first recorded only in 1860. Many of the early instances evoked the watery associations explicitly, as does this, from Edward Meyrick Goulburn’s book The Pursuit of Holiness of 1869: “As an exuberant mounting flood shall tide us over the difficulties of our career”.