bodies of water (II of II)

In Part I, we discovered armpits and bosoms in our bodies…of water. In Part II, we discover enemies, mucous, rifles, and sponges in marshriverseastream, and swamp.

Fast Mash

  • Marsh comes from Old English mersc/merisc, related to root that gave Latin mare and English mere 
  • River enters into English around 1300 from French, riviere, from Latin riparia or ripa (riverbank)
  • Sea is from Old English sae, and could mean sea or lake
  • Stream flows back to Indo-European *sreu– (flow), related to extensive cognates of rheum 
  • Swamp is first attested to Captain John Smith in 1624, probably British-dialectical for sunk and possibly connected to Germanic source for sponge 


Old English has mersc and merisc, which has been reconstructed from the West Germanic *marisko. This root, in turn, probably comes from the Proto-Germanic *mari and the Indo-European *mori. Cognates abound, including English’s own mere, a wonderfully specific noun referring to anything from seaoceanlakepondpool, or cistern. You might recognize it in French’s mer or Latin’s mare, or, better yet, in marine or maritime.

From what I can tell, Skeat is alone in arguing that mere originally meant dead, as in stagnant water or the waste of the ocean. He points the reader to Sanskrit’s maru (desert) and mri (die). If you’ve studied a Romance language, you’ll think of mortalmuertemorte, etc., from the Latin morii (die). In spite of such metaphoric and phonological alignment, I think Skeat wandered too far into the marsh with this one, perhaps underestimating our linguistic ancestors’ ability to handle polysemy, ambiguity, homophony, discursive context, inter alia.

Marshal is unrelated but comes from roots meaning, essentially, horse servant.  


River comes into English around 1300, from, you guessed it, Old French, riviere. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology places the origin of riviere in Latin’s riparia, the female form of an adjective describing riverbanks or seashores. Others find it in French’s own rive (the land along the river), from Latin’s ripa, or riverbank. On this matter, Skeat redeems himself, citing the confusion likely caused by Latin’s rivus (stream) and its dimunitive, rivulus (brook).

So, ripa gives us the scientific riparian, which is rather unexciting until we consider that ripa signified rather steep banks and therefore probably derives from the Proto-Indo-European *rei-, (stratch, tear, cut off). RivenRiftRifle? Yup. They are all related.

There is also arrive, ultimately from the Latin ad- (towards) and ripa. It meant come to shore, particularly after a long journey on the sea.

And derive? How apropos. Originally, the verb indicated conducting water from a source to a channel. Thus: Latin’s de– (away from) and rivus (stream).

Then there’s my favorite: rival. Quite simply, Latin’s rivalis meant one who uses the same stream as another. Friend or foe? Although my Latin dictionary does cite a meaning of neighbor, it also heats things up with one who shares the same mistress. Man loves woman. Man loves other man’s woman. There really are no original stories.

What’s amazes me is how the Latinate river replaces Old English’s own ea. I mean, could there be a simpler sound? You’d think this would be a stubborn word. And it probably was. But, let’s face it, one word is just as good as another, within certain cultural parameters, n’est ce pas? And alas, all rivers lead even back to Rome, as even ea is Indo-European (cf. aqua).


English may have lost ea, but we kept sae in the form of sea. It’s Germanic in origin, and there is no Indo-European equivalent. It could mean sea or lake, just as mere could mean sea or lake. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some interesting observations concerning the interchangeable, and sometimes reversed, meanings of words for sea and lake. They are worth repeating here:

Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated.

The two words are used more or less interchangeably, and exist in opposite senses (e.g. Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Cf. also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.).


Stream has been steady: Old English, stream (the diphthong of which probably pronounced more like quickly gliding form the in cat to the in father). It meant “course of water,” and, in spite of itself, has some deep roots. Its Proto-Germanic *straumaz is also responsible for today’s Dutch stroom and German Strom.  Follow it further to the Proto-Indo-European *sreu (flow), related to rheum, which once meant tears but now is the ickier watery mucous. Yes, rheumatoid is related.

The cognates are ridiculous:

  • Sanskrit sravati (flows), srotah (stream)
  • Avestan (ancient Iranian language of Zoroastrian scripture) thraotah- (stream/river)
  • Old Persian rauta (river)
  • Greek rheos (a flowing, stream), rhythmos (rhythm), rhytos (fluid, liquid)
  • Old Irish, sruaim (stream/river), Irish sruth (ibid.)
  • Welsh (and I dare you to try to play this in your next round of Scrabble) ffrwd (stream)
  • Old Norse straumr 
  • Old English stream
  • Old High German strom (cf. maelstrom)
  • Latvian/Lettish strauma
  • Lithuanian sraveti (trickle, ooze)
  • Old Church Slavonic struja (river), o-strovu (island)
  • Polish strumień (brook)

This ancient, pervasive Indo-European array leaves me gobsmacked. No reason to reinvent the…er, word, I guess.


In 1624, John Smith, Captain John Smith, wrote in his The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles:

Some small Marshes and Swamps there are, but more profitable than hurtfull.

And here we have, thanks to the OED, the first attestation of swamp, although surely Mr. Smith brought it to Washington (area) from an English dialect. There is argument that it developed from a Germanic source meaning sponge or fungus. There is further argument, which the OED delightfully calls “radical,” that it is related to the Greek σομϕός (spongy, porous). But there is an identical dialectical form meaning sunk. Skeat gets more radical and links it to swim.

Either way, the verb, as in I’m swamped at work, is thusly derived. As must be the colorful and terribly descriptive swamp ass. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? There are many other wonderful compounds, including my favorite, swamp Yankee, a pejorative regional term for rural New Englanders. And yes, that band name is already taken. And no, I don’t think they play swamp rock.

m ∫ r ∫


5 thoughts on “bodies of water (II of II)

  1. John Smith was originally from near Alford, Lincolnshire and claimed descent from the ancient Smith family of Cuerdley, Lancashire, educated in Louth, Lincolnshire. Whether his ‘swamp’ was a local dialect term for the time I don’t know but in the Northern Yorkshire dialect of Craven there is ‘sumpy’ for ‘boggy, wet’ and there’s topographical examples in some British placenames ie. Sompting, West Sussex which is cited as ‘Sultinges’ in the Domesday Book and said to be from Old English: sompt + ingas – dwellers by the marsh.

    ‘sump’ still means in English:

    A hollow or pit into which liquid drains, such as a cesspool, cesspit or sink.
    An infiltration basin used to manage surface run-off water and recharge underground aquifers.
    An area in a cave where an underground flow of water exits the cave into the earth.
    The lowest point in a basement, into which flows water that seeps in from outside. (Wiktionary)

    In medieval cosmology, the sump was the centre of the cosmos, where the dregs and filth descended, with the celestial sphere far exalted above the world of fallen man. (Wikipedia)

    So you can see ‘sump’ seems to have a ‘swampy’ extended meaning.


    1. Mwncïod,

      In American English, we do have “sump pumps” to help drain water that has accumulated in basements. I never considered the meaning of this “sump” until you supplied current meanings of the word.

      I’m stuck on the role of the sump in medieval cosmology. Fascinating that such a boggy, muddy, murky place was at the center of the cosmos. Because other (contemporaneous) cosmologies speak of Earth, inhabited by God’s final creation in his image, as the story goes, as at the center of the cosmos. The sump view is emphasizing the postlapsarian, of course, as you point out. Either way, it’d be interesting to see this struggle play out for earlier Christians, trying figuring out man’s place as both created in God’s image yet fallen. Seems to me they are still struggling to figure out it today.

      Thanks for sharing these insights!


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