Sunday, April 08, 2018

When Did Brits and Americans Start Saying "The Pond"? | Distant Words

The Atlantic Ocean: an enormous stretch of blue that has played host to some of history’s greatest hits; Christopher Columbus’ naive expedition to India without GPS; the Titanic’s unprovoked assault on an iceberg; and said iceberg’s untimely death at the age of two from heatstroke. Little wonder, then, that an ocean of such repute boasts a 4-star rating on Google Reviews. I’m actually not kidding.

Throughout its long and storied history, the Atlantic has gone by several names, from the “Ocean Sea” to the “Great Western Ocean.” But there’s one jocular name in particular that has, of late, infiltrated the English lexicon—not to mention my blog name—and that’s “The Pond.”



You see, someone somewhere decided that it was probably best for all concerned that instead of lamenting yet another long, monotonous flight across the Atlantic, they would try and see the funny side. And so “the Pond” was born.

Except there’s one problem: the use of “Pond” in this sense predates the first Transatlantic flight by about 280 years.

That's right, we've been comically underplaying those 3,000 miles for centuries. Indeed, sources from the 19th century indicate that people on both sides of the... well... Pond, were using it fairly abundantly at that time.

But was this the period in which it was coined? Like a certain ocean liner referenced earlier, I needed to go a little deeper. So sorry about that.

Noticing this curious reference placing the word's origin at 200 years earlier still, I reached out to Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary to get a source for the claim.

The document he provided was eye-opening. It turns out that one of those 19th century sources, Nehemiah Wallington's Historical Notices of Events Occurring Chiefly in the Reign of Charles I, contained references to an extract preserved among that very king’s pamphlets. The extract in question, dated December 12, 1640, includes a dialog between two of Charles’ close confidantes, Lord Finch and Secretary Windebank, the latter of whom remarks: 
“Well met, my Lord, it seems that you have taken flight over the great Pond, pray what newes in England?”
While this marks the earliest known written record of “the Pond,” it is possible that the phrase existed in speech earlier, even, than that. And with good reason. Because about 20 years earlier, the Atlantic played host to another of history’s greatest hits.

September 6, 1620: a ship carrying the first English Puritans to America set sail on its 66-day voyage across the ocean. The Mayflower’s first venture toward modern-day Cape Cod would be a tale of endurance, hardship, and appalling flatulence.

Nonetheless, the landmark journey would set in motion a twenty-year period known as “the Great Migration”, in which 20,000 Englanders would flee religious persecution back home for the perceived freedom of New England.

Could it be that the term exchanged by Lord Finch and Secretary Windebank in 1640, a year which—coincidentallymarked the end of the Great Migration, was first concocted by the puritans or other such immigrants?

We might never know. But what we do know for sure is that the journey time from England to the New World during the 17th century was measured not in hours, but months. The people who coined the word either had a phenomenal sense of humour or they were lied to.

And so, as I write to you from 2018, thank you for reading this post. Just don’t tell the Stuarts that it transmitted across the Pond instantaneously. They’d probably burn me for witchcraft.



Laurence Brown is a British writer and YouTuber who somehow convinced the city of Chicago to let him in. He is an English Language graduate from Lancaster University and a passionate word etymologist, with a particular interest in British and American neologisms. Since moving to the United States, he has become increasingly curious about Britain's historical influence on American culture and about America in general.

1 comment:

John Ross said...

The Stuarts would have to seek your extradition for that to happen. I think you'd have a greater chance of judgement from the Salem folks.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...