- Ocean enters English via Anglo-Norman from Old French occean ca. late 12th-c.
- Old French occean comes from Latin, ōceanus, from Ancient Greek Ὠκεανὸς (Ōkeanὸs)
- Ōkeanὸs referred to a great river circling the earth which fed all other rivers; geographic discoveries later narrowed it to remote waters and far boundaries of the west (Atlantic)
- Ōkeanὸs was also a primeval, life-giving god, son of Uranus (Sky) and Earth (Gaia), married to Tethys, father of the Oceanids and river gods
- Not Indo-European in origin; ultimate origin unknown
Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Billy, Frank, Spray, a 1990s single by a be-flanneled American alternative rock group, a star-studded remake but ultimately middling 2000s heist film trilogy—all are oceans of one sort or another. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oceans cover over 70% of Earth’s surface and yet less than 5% of these saline waters have been properly explored. For as vast it is, for as essential to life on earth, for as awesome to the human imagination, ocean is a little word and one whose form has, in my opinion, changed very little over time. Of course, when it comes to language, size doesn’t matter, because even the plainest word can be a portal to surprising places, profound meanings, alternate realities. (Yes, even I had to resist the more obvious metaphors: vessel, voyage, Disney Cruise Liner, the Pequod, etc….)
Ocean has sailed a familiar etymological route in the English language: French by way of Latin and Latin by way of Ancient Greek. Middle English had occean(e) (and many other spellings, from occion to oxyan). This was borrowed in the late 12th-c via Anglo-Norman from Old French occean, related to the Spanish and Italian oceano. These Romance forms developed from Latin, ōceanus, which, with its hard c, hails from the Ancient Greek, Ὠκεανὸς (Ōkeanὸs). In Ancient Greek, Ōkeanὸs was both a geographical and a mythological entity. And, originally, it wasn’t an ocean, per se, but a great river.
I pulled my Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) off the shelf, where it had been long lying heavily on its side, propping up my wireless router. I won the dictionary (nerd alert) in high school for a Latin site translation competition. It’s authoritative, even if it’s lived a decorative life for the past decade in my household. That’ll change, though, if words like ocean keep pointing me to the far reaches of the globe.
Here’s what the OCD has to say about our word. Don’t skip these paragraphs: there is some seriously interesting stuff here.
Concerning the geographical Oceanus:
A circumambient ocean-river, the final destination of all streams, predates Greek and Roman culture, appears in Homer and Hesiod, and was confirmed by geographical theory: the accessible land-mass could only cover a small portion of the earth’s surface. Some Homeric commentators thought that Homer had deliberately practised exokeanismos—removing the experience of Odysseus into a world beyond the domain of factuality. Phoenician contacts with the metalliferious and fertile Guadalquivr valley…took them into Atlantic waters early, and…Greeks followed soon… (OCD, 3rd ed., p. 1058)
First of all, exokeanismos. Whoa. Second, circumambient and metalliferious. Good thing I’ve already taken the GRE. So, the ocean was conceived of as a big river circling around the great mass of Earth, and it fed all the water sources flowing into the land.
Mythologically, the great, world-girding river was personified in the primeval deity, Oceanus:
Son of Uranus (Sky) and Ge (Gaia, Earth), husband of Tethys (a combination probably derived from the Babylonian creation-epic Enuma Elis) and father of the Oceanids and river-gods…: the name has no Indo-European etymology and is probably a loan-word. The Homeric Oceanus is the river encircling the whole world, which through subterranean connections issue all other rivers; its sources are in the west where the sun sets…The rise of geographical investigation in Herodotus…and others narrowed the significance of Oceanus down to the geographical term of ‘Ocean.’ (OCD, 3rd ed., p. 1058)
Out in the life-giving waters of Oceanus were believed to be terrifying monsters, far-flung peoples, and mystical islands (including the Elysian fields), as were the setting sun and stars. And with better geography, these distant terrors and mysteries were Oceanus’ domain, Poseidon coming to rule over the Mediterranean. Maybe way out there in open waters is the ultimate origin of the word.
Linguistically, it is in Mediterranean—the sea between land or in the middle of the earth, Mesogeios in Greek—that we might understand Oceanus even better. As the OED observes, up to around 1650, ocean often didn’t appear by its lonesome, but as ocean sea, sea of the ocean, and, earlier yet, see occean. (The OED likens this to the more familiar concept of the so-called open sea.) This construction is modelled on the French, the OED continues: mer oceane or oceane mer, based on Latin’s mare ōceanum. Indeed, the distinction between rivers and the ocean river and seas and ocean seas was marked even by Homer, who uses ῥόoς Ὠκεανὸῖo (rόos Okeanoio) and Ὠκεανὸς πoταμός (Okeanos potamos, like hippopotamus).
The Cosmic C
Now, the whole pronunciation of ocean is a little choppy. Greek used the letter kappa, κ (/k/), which sound Latin systematically (eventually) recorded as a c. (There is a lot more to this alphabetic and phonetic business with c, g, k, and q, of course ). As Latin evolved into the Romance languages, the [k] sound became palatalized (think: middle of roof of your mouth), pronounced more like [ts] by French peoples. In English-speaking mouths, I speculate that the “workout” of starting with a long o and finishing with an n might have pushed the tongue back and bunched it up to make what are called palato-alveolars, specifically the [ʃ] sound we hear in ocean (but more recognizable in, say, ship or mashed radish). Further, earlier spellings of the ocean include i and y and often double c‘s (I’d be curious to know if Old English’s pronunciation of double consonants had any influence). I’m no phonetician, but, with such palatalization, I think we might compare the situation to the pronunciation of the [ʃ] sound in words like mission and nation.
Why sounds change as they do is fascinating in its own right, and, in so many ways, a more proper linguistic pursuit than I can carry out here. But I can’t get over the fact that ocean—five little letters, two short syllables—evokes ancient cosmology. And I can’t help but pretend I’m standing at the shore—a formidable expanse, a menacing, marvelous horizon bounding the known and unknown—and not also see our distant forebears, wondering the same. This connection, threaded through one small word for one great phenomenon.
And you know how we say you can hear the ocean if you hold a seashell up to your ear? To me, etymologies can be like that, too. With ocean, I like to think I can hear just a bit of the past, an ancient god and ancient worldview, if I listen hard and close enough.