• helm •
Pronunciation: helm • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, Verb
Meaning: 1. The tiller or wheel of a ship, the steering gear of a ship. 2. The position of leadership or control of an organization as in, "at the helm of the company". 3. (Verb) To guide, lead, or steer. 4.The stalk(s) of grain, straw.
Notes: Helm is another one of those odd little lexical rarities in English that are pronounced exactly the way it is spelled. I'll bet few of you have heard this word used as a verb like this: "Cape nurse helming state health office" (Cape Cod Times, 6/26/13). Other than these two curious twists, it is a lexical orphan that raises no red flags.
In Play: You may take this sentence either literally or figuratively: "We need a steady hand at the helm when so many people are rocking the boat." This one has only the figurative sense of today's Good Word: "When a courageous woman took the helm, she set our company's bearings on a more tranquil course." Then we have the verbal use: "Grandma won't let grandpa helm the car because of his tendency to fall asleep at stop signs."
Word History: Helm descended from Old English helma "rudder; position of control". Apparently the same Proto-Indo-European word converted to Greek kalpe "pot, jug, jar" and Latin calpar "wine cask", both round like a wheel. The sense of this word changed on its way to the modern European languages. By the time it reached Modern German, it had changed to Helm "handle, helve". In fact, English preserved both meanings by changing the spellings to helve "ax handle" and helm. (Thank you, Dilys Smith, for suggesting today's Good Word back in June of this year. Had someone more efficient than Dr. Goodword been at the helm, there would not have been such a delay.)