What Does 'Leeway' Mean?

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

leeway wind

Have you ever given people leeway? That is, given them the flexibility to do something the way they want to do it? 

If you have, you’ve used a nautical term that dates from the 1600s.

Leeway refers to the way a sailing vessel can drift sideways even while it’s moving forward. 

Picture this: A ship is sailing north. The wind is blowing southeast. The ship can tack back and forth into the wind and still manage to travel north. However, the ship will also drift leeward to the east.

This tendency to drift in the direction of the wind is called leeway.

If you drift leeward into a lee shore, or the shore the wind is blowing toward, you can crash.

Over time, this literal expression took on a figurative meaning. Leeway came to describe the amount of freedom you have to do something before you…well, crash. For example, if you’re given a lot of leeway at a piano recital, you could play jazz, R&B, or classical. If you’re given no leeway, you’ll be told exactly what to play.


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.