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Watered Down Etymologies (Ocean and Sea)

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By Anatoly Liberman

Much to my embarrassment, I am using a title of the type I ridiculed not too long ago, but the temptation was too strong, and I yielded to it. The idea (of this post, not of the title) occurred to me when I was reading a book on the history and archeology of Ancient Greece. The ultimate source of ocean in the European languages is Greek, but where the Greeks got their word is not known. Etymological conjectures on this score have not been too numerous. Some scholars compared okeanos with a Sanskrit verb and its Greek cognate meaning “to surround” (may I mention in parentheses that surround has nothing to do with round but everything with Latin superundare “rise in waves,” whose root is unda “wave”?); however, nowadays hardly anyone has trust in this connection. A Hebrew root, also meaning “surround,” holds out even less promise. Most likely, the Greeks borrowed the word from the non-Indo-European speakers of their islands.

The image of a mighty sea or river encircling the world is common in the beliefs of many Eastern peoples (the Babylonians, for instance), and it also occurs in the mythology of the Indo-Europeans. According to the most archaic Greek beliefs, the Ocean was a river, but later authors identified it with the Black Sea, and its single island with the entrance to Hades, the kingdom of the dead. Homer placed this entrance on the shore of the Ocean.

The history of the Germanic word sea presents a striking parallel to what has been said above about ocean. Its early form, recorded in fourth-century Gothic, is saiws, and, as far as we can judge, it designated, at least originally, a body of stagnant water. We know one of the Indo-European words for “sea” from Latin mare (compare such English borrowings from the Romance languages as marina, marine, marital, maritime, and marinade) and its cognates. The German for “sea” is still Meer, a synonym of See, but Engl. mere has little currency. At one time it meant “sea,” whereas today, in the rare instances it is used, it means “lake.” This puzzling confusion of words for a body of salt and of stagnant water goes back to the beginning of recorded Germanic. Thus, Grendel, the monster Beowulf killed, lived in a mere, and a detailed description of his uninviting habitat points to a swamp, but when Beowulf returned to fight Grendel’s mother, he plunged to the bottom of the sea. Yet mother and son were said to live together.

From Gothic we have an incomplete text of the Bible. The translator of the New Testament into Gothic (Wulfila) needed words for Greek limne “lake; sea” and thalassa “sea” (someone may have come across the English noun limnology “study of lakes” and the adjective thalassic “pertaining to the sea”). In addition to marei (an obvious cognate of Latin mare) and saiws, he had at his disposal a curious tautological compound marisaiws, that is, “sea-sea” or “lake-sea,” which he used to render the same limne (those interested in tautological compounds will find a special post on the subject in this blog). According to some indications, the protoform from which saiws and its cognates were derived sounded approximately like saikwi- (with the hyphen for an ending). This fact militates against the tempting comparison between saiws and Latin saevus “raging”; -k- is the problem. Probably saikwi- and its Indo-European ancestor soigwi- designated a body of stagnant water not prone to rage.

None of the other attempts to find a convincing etymology for sea has found universal recognition, and many word historians (many, not all!) tend to think that the speakers of the Germanic languages borrowed it from the former inhabitants of their homeland in northern Europe. The similarity between the search for the roots of sea and ocean is instructive. The Greeks were very well aware of the great expanse of water around their archipelago; yet the word Okeanos may be part of the pre-Greek substrate (substrate refers to a language of the indigenous population submerged in the language of the new settlers). Likewise, the isolated fact that sea has no obvious Germanic origin would prove nothing about the closeness of the first speakers of Germanic to any coast. But saiws forms part of a sizable group of words pertaining to sea and seafaring that have no convincing Indo-European etymology (sail, boat, ebb, storm, and others—they are listed on p. 277 of my book Word Origins…and How We Know Them), and in their entirety they pose the question about the home of Germanic-speakers and their familiarity with the sea. However interesting this question may be, it need not delay us here.

The Greeks, as noted, associated the Ocean with the kingdom of the dead. Germanic speakers also believed that life ends in the sea. The legendary Scyld Scefing, a king described in the opening pages of Beowulf, departs after being given a ship burial. Another ship burial was that of the Scandinavian god Baldr, the hero of a famous myth. The Gothic for “soul” is saiwala, and its etymology has been contested as vigorously as the etymology of saiws. Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two brothers of fairy tale fame, believed that saiws and saiwala are related. He may have been right. Indirect proof of his hypothesis can be seen in the proposals to connect both saiws and saiwala with either Latin saevus “raging” or Greek aiolos “rapid,” the latter familiar to us from Aeolus, the ruler of the ever-changeable winds; whence Aeolian harp.

I will take the liberty to finish this post with a personal remark about Jacob Grimm. Linguistics, literature, and history are unlike mathematics, physics, or music. One should beware of calling a language historian a genius. Yet at least three language students deserve this appellation. One of them is Jacob Grimm. The public knows him only because of the fairytales, but he was the founder of comparative Germanic philology and of several other areas of study. More important is the fact how often, though armed only with his prodigious memory and unerring intuition, rather than our dictionaries, manuals, and computers, he offered correct solutions. Every time I have a bright idea about the origin of a word, an old custom, or belief, I look up the relevant passage in the volumes of Jacob Grimm’s works. In most cases, it turns out that he anticipated my guess by at least 150 years. So I think his view of the derivation of the word soul (saiwala) is right, and I find some confirmation of it in the Greeks’ treatment of the Ocean. No doubt, Grimm knew all of it long before I was born.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Chaka

    You’re going to leave us in suspense regarding the other two?

  2. Jewellery Baby

    I love your humor. It always brightens up my day.

  3. Nathan Carlson

    …Walter W. Skeat and Frank Chance?
    …Eric Hamp and Edgar Polome?
    …Anonymous and M.M. Makovskii?

  4. Anonymous

    Does mirror then come from meer?

  5. Walter Turner

    Ventris and Jones?

  6. [...] linguists called geniuses. My innocent conclusion to the post on the origin of the words sea and ocean called forth a few humorous remarks. I said that, in my opinion, Jacob Grimm (1785-1853) was a [...]

  7. Polprav

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post “No teme” in your blog with the link to you?

  8. Laura

    Thank you, I found your script looking for an explanation for a poem in which Dylan Thomas creates a relation between the words SEE and SEA. These are the last verses of “Elegy”: “The rivers of the dead / Veined his poor hand I held, and I saw / Through his unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea”. We can also imagine a common meaning between SIGHT and SOUL, at least the poet seems to suggest all these things, very deep and complicated, that are certainly involved with linguistics.

  9. [...] linguists called geniuses. My innocent conclusion to the post on the origin of the words sea and ocean called forth a few humorous remarks. I said that, in my opinion, Jacob Grimm (1785-1853) was a [...]

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