Six Arabic Words for “Ocean” or “Sea”

ماء

root: م-و-ه / noun / plural: مِياه / definition: water


Autumn is officially here. And I’m sure of this because I’m wearing two pairs of socks, as I’m forced to every autumn or winter because my feet turn to ice—although my parents always tell me it’s not that cold and walk around as though summer is still lingering.

Despite living here for most of my life, I’m convinced I’m just not adapted to the UK’s cool climate. Or maybe it’s just my toes protesting summer’s departure.

I may be chilly, but the pages of the Hans Wehr are warm because I’ve been flicking through and taking a look at some synonyms which all mean “sea” or “ocean“.

Here’s my little collection:

بَحْر

root: ب-ح-ر

I think we’re all probably familiar with this noun for “sea”.

And, as I’m sure your Arabic literature teachers will remind you, بحر refers to the meter in Arabic poetry too, its plural being بُحور.

We actually looked at the phrase في بحرِ in, Wehr Wednesdays #66, which translates to “in the course of”.

مُحيط

root: ح-و-ط

محيط, “ocean”, is actually the active participle (اسم فاعل) of the form IV verb أحاط/يُحيط which means “to surround”. So, محيط literally means “the thing that surrounds”.

Interestingly—although I guess not surprisingly—the image of the sea or ocean in Arabic poetry is often used to represent the poet’s surroundings. I touched on this idea in the course of my dissertation, lots to be explored there…

قاموس

root: ق-م-س

قاموس means both “ocean” and “dictionary”, which makes sense as both things are immersive.

And that’s exactly what the root means—with the form I verb قَمَسَ/يَقمِسُ meaning “to immerse”.

I guess you can drown in both oceans and dictionaries too, if you forget to take your head out of them. So much more analysis to be done, maybe I should write a dissertation on this next.

مهرقان

root: ه-ر-ق

The root of مهرقان has the core meaning of “to spill”.

Well, that’s another way to look at the ocean isn’t it? As a big spill? Very poetic, naturally.

From the root ه-ر-ق, we also get the phrase إهراق الدماء which—for some reason—I didn’t include in Three Ways to Say “Bloodshed” in Arabic, but is nevertheless a synonym of the phrases there.

The vowel sounds in مهرقان can vary, as you can see in its entry below. We explored this noun in Wehr Wednesdays #121, if you remember.

يَمّ

root: ي-م-م

You’ll find lots of interesting phrases under this root in the dictionary.

I particularly like يَمَّ في فَمِ البُركان (literally: “to head into the mouth/crater of the volcano”) which is translated as “to venture into the lion’s den”.

يمّ meaning “sea” is used in the Qur’an in various places—where it also has the meaning of “river”—and in each instance, it occurs in verses related to the story of موسى (Moses).

The Hans Wehr notes that يمّ in Modern Standard Arabic specifically refers to the open sea.

خِضَمّ

root: خ-ض-م

We’ve seen the word خِضَم before, in Arabic Observations: More Word Twins.

It can either be used to describe the vastness of a body of water, or the sea or ocean itself.

Does anyone know any other synonyms that could be added to this post? Let us know in the comments below!

I’m already working on a step-by-step literature translation post for next week so stay tuned, folks.

!إلى اللقاء


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