Ever since we have had the means to communicate with each other, we have known about today’s word. Covering approximately 75% of our planet, it contains some of the most awesome and wondrous spectacles, such as the tallest mountain in the world (Mauna Kea, at over 10,000m), the longest mountain range (the Mid-Oceanic Mountain Ridge, which is around 35,000 miles long), twenty million tons of gold, numerous undiscovered species (⅓ of all aquatic life is assumed to be undiscovered and undocumented), and more archaeological evidence than all of the world’s museums combined. However, much about its area and contents is literally unknown – even our own moon is better researched and documented. As you probably guessed, today’s word is ocean. It’s a word so familiar that we have accepted it as commonplace, but, much like the interesting facts above regarding the big bodies of water themselves, there’s more about the word that’s lying below the surface.
Coming from the Old French occean, our word finds its root in the Latin oceanus, which was derived from the Greek ōkeanos, being the name for the great river or sea that in ancient Greek geography surrounded (like a ring) the disc of the Earth. Though we may simply think of an ocean as being a large, open body of salt water (~3% salinity), the concept was central to Greek mythology: the personification of the ocean, Oceanus, was the son of Uranus (the sky god) and Gaia (the earth goddess), and, from his union with his sister Tethys, produced the gods of the rivers and streams (Potamoi) as well as the 3,000 Oceanid nymphs. No wonder seafood is commonly linked with increased virility!
The first known use of the term in English can be found in Carl Horstmann’s 1887 edition of a Middle English hagiographic work, titled The Early South English Legendary or Lives of Saints. Specifically on the section about St. Brendan written circa 1300, the manuscript, utilising the term as simply meaning a large body of saltwater, states: “Tell us what thou hast seen..In the sea of Ocean.”
Slightly less than a century later, our term starts becoming something more specific than just a large body of saltwater. Writing around 1387, in a translation of Ranulf Higden’s summary of history, Polychronicon, John Trevisa transcribes that: “Alexander had to go about the last cliff of the Ocean” differentiating it from a sea, which would be considered smaller and occupies the area between a land mass and an ocean (think of the Mediterranean Sea or Caribbean Sea). Further dividing this “world ocean”, Trevisa (later in the same work) also translates Higden’s attempt to geographically divide the oceans with the use of a specific terms or location: “This Europa is the third part of this world wide and..stretches downward by the north ocean [L. septentrionalem oceanum] and on to the end of Spain.”
Aside from simply being used to denote, well, an ocean, the term also began to be used figuratively 2 centuries later. For something that covers 360 million square kilometres of Earth’s surface area (~71%) and has an estimated volume of 321,003,271 cubic miles, it should come as no surprise that the word ocean would come to define something that is immense or of an undefinable quantity: this usage first appeared in the 1590 epic poem, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser, penning: “A Bear and Tiger being met..On Lybian Ocean wide.”
Finally, 6 decades after using the physical object to denote something physically of conceptually large, we find the term used in a more philosophical and existential sense, as part of the phrase “the ocean of being”. Revolving around concepts of Natural Law and the Age of Enlightenment during the English Civil War, Nathaniel Culverwell’s series of sermons, combined in An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature in 1651, simply yet profoundly states: “All beings they are within the souls Horizon… It can take in the several drops of Being, and it can take in much of the Ocean of Being.”
As a resource and in a sense of understanding, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the importance of these giant bodies of water, and when compared to the usage of the term, it’s just a drop in the ocean.