‘Don’t panic when a black swan like the SVB [Silicon Valley Bank] collapse hoves in sight – for it will surely pass.’ – Spectator, 18 March 2023

Sound advice, no doubt, from the magazine’s business correspondent. But where did he get that extraordinary phrase ‘hoves in sight’ from? ‘Hove’ is the past tense of the verb ‘to heave’ and ‘to heave in sight’ means ‘to appear,’ or as Chamber’s puts it, ‘to come into view’.  Somehow the fundamental meaning of ‘to heave’, to lift with effort, has become associated particularly with nautical actions, with hauling on a rope or cable for instance, and is hardly separable from the exclamation ‘ho!’ as in ‘heave-ho!’, a phrase devised no doubt by first mates or whoever had the job of co-ordinating the exertions of a team of sailors all engaged in the same effortful task. There’s also a definite nautical inflection to the phrase ‘to heave in sight’ or ‘in view’. It is generally used to describe the appearance of a ship on the horizon. 

All comprehensible enough. But how did notions of the simple verb ‘heave’ become so tangled up that its past participle ‘hove’ has come to be thought of as the present tense of a verb in its own right? There’s the term ‘hove’, which is archaic (used by the poet Edmund Spenser in the sixteenth century) or a Scottish dialect transitive verb meaning ‘to swell’. This may have some connection with the modern intransitive verb ‘to heave’, but it certainly doesn’t have the meaning intended by the word ‘hoves’ in my citation. ‘Hoves’, in any case, is a quite illegitimate formation, apparently the third person singular of an imaginary verb ‘to hove’. 

And it isn’t explained either, by the metaphorical mention there of a black swan. A swan of any colour doesn’t ‘hove’ in sight, but is likely to appear or come into view – or glide? – like any common or garden American bank, even if the bank is collapsing. Despite the fact that there’s no connection with sixteenth-century poetry, somehow the word ‘heave’, carrying as it does that unforgettable connection with ‘ho!’, can’t easily be disassociated from overtones of the Age of Sail, and of the quaintly technical. I feel a bit of a killjoy in stating firmly that there’s no such verb as ‘to hove’ in modern standard English – but that’s the case. And since it’s a fantasy word and does sound very odd, I’d encourage people not to use it.   

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