Ocean vs. Sea

Courtesy of Wikipedia

If you’ve read many articles on the waters of our world, specifically the larger bodies of water, you most likely have ran across both words “ocean” and “sea” in your travels, and often referring to the same thing. Upon casual examination of both words they do mean the same. But you might point out that when using the word sea it is also referring to the smaller bodies of water that are partially or fully surrounded by land, such as the Caspian Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Red Sea and others. And seas are in essence, the smaller sections of water within the four (or five) oceans. But what about the deep sea, sea foam, and the sea floor, all of which is located in or about the ocean? Are these not referring to the ocean itself?

So I asked myself, why do two words describe the same thing; and is there any significant difference? Keep reading, for that is what I shall try to clarify today.

When attempting to define something that has been a part of culture from the beginning of time, one must start with the very basis of the word. According to the Websters dictionary from 1997, ocean literally means “the great body of salt water that covers approximately 72% of the earth’s surface”. This body of water is split into four sections by their basins, (large depressions in the seafloor), Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic. (Some say the Antarctic, or Southern, ocean is also to be included in this list). “These four (the ocean basins) are connected to various shallower seas” so says Sherri Seligson of Exploring Creation with Marine Biology.

Sea, from the same source, also refers to the “continuous body of salt water covering the greater part of the earth’s surface”. But the second definition goes on to define it as “a large body of salt water wholly or partly enclosed by land”. So here we are back at the beginning, understanding that they both can and do mean the same thing, but sea can also be used more definitively.

Furthermore, we get our word “ocean” from the Greek “okeanos”. The ancient Greeks considered the waters surrounding their archipelago the ocean. Sea comes from the Germanic word “saiws” originally indicating a stagnant body of water and later the great body of water itself. It all goes to show the progression of the worlds languages. I’ve noticed that in the past, the word ocean was rarely used and instead sailors and pirates alike used the word sea.

Now I will attempt to answer the questions of before, namely, why are there two words and what significance are they to our culture today. I believe that the Germanic “saiw” or sea proved more popular due to its proximity to the English-speaking world of the past and was therefore the predominant term for the majority of the past, at least in terms of the English language. The King James version of the bible is evidence of this in that sea is used over and over but ocean is never used. With closer inspection of the two words in the more recent past, ocean eventually started to grow in popularity as a broader term. This would explain why we still use sea for ocean and not just the seas themselves, and why we have terms like deep sea, sea floor, sea foam, sea stars, and seamount, to name a few. There’s an unforgettable history in every word we use and all one has to do is just search for it. Isn’t it exhilirating?

If this post has been enlightening, then I have succeeded in my purpose for writing. I hope you have enjoyed reading and will come back for more. Thanks for reading!

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