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Geography, a word meaning “describing the earth” is based on the Greek word “gē” meaning “earth.” In describing the earth, English has a number of words for different physical aspects of the earth.


The English word “island” comes from a prehistoric German word *aujō which indicated “land associated with water.” This passed into Old English as “īeg” (“island”) which later was compounded with “land” to become “īegland.” In late Middle English this had evolved into “iland” which later became “island.”

So how did “iland” become “island”? Why did it pick up the “s” which is silent? The answer to that seems to come from the Old French “ile” which then became “isle” in English and the assumption that “iland” and “ile” must have had the same Latin basis and thus the “s” was inserted in the fifteenth century.


“Peninsula” comes into English from the Latin “pæninsula” which was derived from “pæne insula” which means “almost an island.”


Geographers generally describe an atoll as a coral island consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon. The word “atoll” comes into English from the Malayalan word “atolu” meaning “reef” which was used by the Maldive Islanders for their island.


River 3140

When we think of a river we usually think of water flowing between two banks. Our English word “river” is based on the river banks rather than the flowing water. The word is based on the Latin “ripa” meaning bank.

The English word “arrive”, by the way, comes to us from “river” and originally meant “come to the shore.”


A Creek 305

The English word “creek” originally meant “narrow and secluded bendiness” and was borrowed from the Old Norse “kriki” which meant “nook”. Over time the word became associated with narrow waterways.

In most of the American, Canadian, and Australian dialects of English “creek” refers to a stream that is smaller than a river. In some British dialects, “creek” refers to a recess or inlet in the shore of the sea.


Lake 083

“Lake”, meaning “a body of water,” found its way into English from the Old French “lac” which comes from the Latin “lacus” which comes from the same Indo-European source that produced the Gaelic “loch.”


The English word “sea” is based on the prehistoric Germanic *saiwiz which has an unknown origin. The German “see”, Dutch “zee”, Swedish “sjō,” and the Danish “sø” are also based on this prehistoric Germanic word.


The ancient Greek geographers viewed the world as being composed mostly of land which was surrounded by water which they called “Okeanós” which refers to a Titan who was the god of this outer sea. The English word “ocean” was borrowed from the Old French “ocean” which came from the Latin “ōceanus.” Originally, “ocean” referred to the mythical sea which surrounded the land mass on the planet. It was only later that there were named oceans such as the Pacific and Atlantic.


Mtn 071

The English “mountain” is based on the Latin “mōns.” The Latin adjective “montānus” meaning “mountainous” is based on “mōns” and in Vulgar Latin it became the noun *montānea which then became “montaigne” in Old French and the English borrowed it from Old French and turned it into “mountain.”


“Continent” comes into English from Old French via Latin: “continēns” which is the present participle of “continēre” meaning “to hold together, enclose, contain.” The geographic use of “continent” comes from the Latin phrase “terra continēns” meaning “continuous land.” In the 16th century “continent” was used to refer to any large continuous expanse of territory and from the early 17th century on it was applied to the Earth’s major landmasses.

What are the continents? The answer to this question will often reflect where you studied geography. In the United States the answer is most frequently: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. However, in many parts of the world the Americas are considered a single continent and the designation Eurasia is used in combining Europe and Asia.  

Note: the * indicates that the Indo-European or prehistoric word has been reconstructed by historical linguists.

Originally posted to Cranky Grammarians on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 02:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters.

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