Words from the Ocean

Teacher Background
It may seem strange, but many of the words we use every day come from maritime cultures. After all, until very recently in our country's (and the world's) history, most long-distance travel took place across the seas. Many of our ancestors came to the United States on ships, and most of the first settlements they founded were ports. They depended on the ocean for food, trade, and news from their home countries. In fact, it is hard to find a city or large community in the United States that is not close to a major body of water. So, it makes sense that many words in our language reflect our ocean culture, both past and present.

The ties between modern language and the sea are strong, and the origins of many words and expressions are often clear. For example, the meaning of phrases such as Don't give up the ship, Like a fish out of water, and Take the wind out of his sails seem almost obvious. Even the name of our country comes from an ocean map maker (Amerigo Vespucci), and our nation's capital, the District of Columbia, is named after the famous explorer Christopher Columbus. However, the origins of many words and phrases are not as obvious and require some understanding of life at, and close to, the sea: At the helm, Batten down the hatches, Blow over, Down the hatch, Learn the ropes, Flotsam and jetsam, Full speed ahead, Get underway, Get the drift, Keel over, Make headway, On deck, Out of Commission, and Go off the deep end.

The oceans connect many lands and languages, carrying words from different cultures into our own language. For example, the term First-rate came from a system that was used in Britain from Elizabethan times through the nineteenth century to evaluate warships. No matter how high a ship's rating, if it sailed too close to the shore it risked running aground on a strand, or beach, and so becoming stranded. However, if the crew were Gung ho, they could call upon their enthusiasm to get them out of a tough situation. This Chinese expression meaning work together was first adopted as a motto by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson during World War II for his division. When these Marines began their training they had to learn the ropes, a phrase that originally referred to the rigging and ropes of a ship. They may not have known that the name of the denim jeans they owned came from a cloth made in Nimes (de Nimes), France that was used by sailors from Genoa, Italy, to make pants. These sailors were known in southern Europe as Gens (the origin of the word jeans). Onboard their ships, they might have suffered from nausea, which now means any queasy or upset feeling in the stomach but comes from the Greek word for ship, or naus.



1. Introduce to students the idea of language as a dynamic element of society. For example, ask each student to think of words that have entered into our everyday language because of the prominence of computers in our culture. To start them off, you may suggest terms such as "interface," "off-line," and "download." Discuss what these words originally meant and their current sense in everyday language. Point out that they are not just used to refer to computers anymore.

2. Explain to students that oceans have played a prominent role in the lives of people from many parts of the world, including ours. Because the seas have influenced what we eat, how we make a living, and where we live, our language includes many terms that came from this ocean heritage. Mention several words and phrases from the background material, discussing their current meanings and how they were first used.

3. Divide the class into groups of three or four and pass out copies of the "Ocean Words" worksheet. Tell the students to brainstorm for about ten minutes and write on the worksheet what they suspect the origins of each word might be. Then have each group choose a representative to convey its results to the rest of the class. Choose three words from the worksheet and ask all of the representatives to write on the chalkboard the ideas their groups had for these terms. Vote as a class on the most likely, and perhaps most funny, proposed word origins.


[To the teacher: Duplicate this page for students. Use with Lesson]

Try to figure out how the original meaning of each word in the following list is connected to the sea and write your ideas in the space provided.

  1. Astronaut/Cosmonaut (a person trained to make flights in space)
  2. Posh (fashionable and expensive)
  3. Ostracism (a group's rejection of someone who is disliked)
  4. Skyscraper (a very tall building)
  5. Strike (refusing to work in order to get better working conditions or higher pay)
  6. Abundance (a great supply)
  7. Overwhelm (to overcome completely, making helpless)
  8. Listless (having no interest in what is going on)
  9. Antenna (a slender feeler on the head of an insect; an aerial for a television or radio)
  10. Salary (a fixed amount of money paid at regular times)

Teacher Answer key:

  1. Astronaut/cosmonaut: From nautes, "sailor."
  2. Posh: Today meaning fashionable and expensive, it has its origins along the docks of colonial Boston. The trunks of the wealthy would carry the label "POSH," short for "portside out, starboard home." This phrase indicated the side of the ship where the luggage should be placed to avoid exposure to the heavy sun.
  3. Ostracism: From the Greek ostrakon, meaning "oyster shell." In ancient Greece, the writ of banishment was inscribed on oyster shells.
  4. Skyscraper: The topsails of ships were called skyscrapers and later lent their name to tall buildings.
  5. Strike: To lower or take down, as a sail or an ensign or a yard. When the British Navy mutinied in 1797, the sailors "struck their yards to prevent them from proceeding to sea . . ."
  6. Abundance: In Latin, the word ab means from, and unda means wave. Plenty of waves or water was an abundance, from abundare. Unda is also the root of "inundate."
  7. Overwhelm: This comes from the middle English word "to capsize."
  8. Listless: Under a wind, ships list to the port or starboard. If there is no wind, there is no list and so no movement for the sailing craft; it is dull and lifeless.
  9. Antenna: Romans used this word to refer to the wooden horizontal beams from which sails were hung. In the sixteenth century, the term was borrowed to refer to the "horns" of an insect.
  10. Salary: The Latin salarium was the allowance of sea salt given to Roman soldiers with their wages.
Written by:

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)