So, for many months I have not listened to TMS in any capacity, which is why you haven’t seen a word defense. But now, I’m back, and I know have access to the Oxford English Dictionary and all sorts of other academicky stuff thanks to my upcoming study at the University of Wisconsin.
So, in any case, helmed … what to say … Since I have no idea what the emailer was meant by this word*, I will just take Brian’s guess that it refers to the meaning “to direct (a film)”. The aforementioned OED dates this very specific usage to 1930, so it’s relatively new, but not that new. It’s not hard to imagine this leap being made, given that a director could be said to steer the direction of a film just as a helmsman steers the direction of a ship.
And what’s more, this is really just a particular extension of a much older use of helm. OED defines this older meaning as “To guide with or as with a helm, Chiefly fig.”, with it’s earliest citation (dating to 1607) being “Fate helmeth all.” Now, I know that that may be a poetic, metaphorical use, but language is built on metaphors.
In short, we’re talking about an early 20th century extension of a nearly four-hundred-year old figurative meaning. I don’t think this one is going away.
EXTRA NOTE: OK, since it came up on the show, I figured I would just have to defend the Klingon language just a bit. Some of you may know that in addition to being TMS’s linguistic defender (well, I wasn’t for a bit) — I also host a podcast about constructed languages (and, of course, create languages myself as a hobby). Many sci-fi properties do, indeed, throw random apostrophes into names for no reason other than decoration, but Klingon, being designed by a linguist, uses it for a purpose — it represents a glottal stop (pronounced by momentarily closing off your larynx), which is a very common convention in romanization. I have my issues with Klingon (or tlIngan), but it is a fairly well fleshed-out language. For a little more of my impressions of Klingon, listen to Conlangery #16 — you can skip the whole discussion of tense if you like.
* I think he may have been a non-native English speaker, for whatever that counts. Possibly Hispanophone, if he did actually spell explain as “esplain”.