Ahoy, laddies! You all surely heard variations of the phrase “Sailing the Seven Seas”, which today generally means that one has been or is sailing all the seas of the world (the IHO 1953 listed a total of 23 seas in their S-23 standard), indicating superior experience due to having seen things; or – used less with a nautical subtext and even more metaphorically – it can tell us that one is not restricted to just one area (of expertise, action, work, …) alone, but is more versatile or more mobile (in modern marketing speak, you could say: “more agile”) than others.
Interestingly enough, the term “Seven Seas” seems to be an cultural example of convergent evolution, appearing in different times and areas of the world with different seas (or other bodies of water) in mind. The Wikipedia page on the term lists several ancient & early modern origins or variations, which seems to indicate that not the seas, but the number part is the real thing we’d need to take a closer look at, but I don’t want to drift into esoterical numerology here – although I’d be interested in reading a cultural history about the significance of number “7“.
Let us focus on the seas here for a bit. I am not going to collect any of the historical or recent catalogues with their different names and waters here. Instead, I want to point out something that all of thoses lists seem to have in common: the people who made them saw a need for distinction between those areas of water. Something set them apart from each other, made them recognizable, gave them their own character – and such their own name. It’s not just “the Sea”, it’s “the Atlantic”, “the Mediterranean”, or “the Adriatic” even. Why is that?
Well, the most obvious item to set seas apart from each other is their location. The Mediterranean Sea consists of the salt-water between the Straits of Gibraltar in the West and the Dardanelles in the East, two narrow passages “separating” it from the Atlantic Ocean and the Marmara Sea respectively. But there are also subsections of the Mediterranean who have their own names without such easy to spot borders, and generally such limits seem to becoming even more vague when speaking of the larger bodies of salt-water: the Oceans; Pacific, Indian & Atlantic.
These huge seas seem not to be separated at all, at least not if we use the same standards that we used for the Mediterranean. Their distinction is as much a result of European history, nautical and colonial, as much as the unified name for the Med is a result of Roman rule over all the waters between the Pillars of Hercules and Constantinople. So, as item two for setting apart the seas we have to list cultural meaning in some form. Who is using, traveling, or even dominating certain areas of water can actually make them earn their own name, too.
A third item to consider are actual differences in and of the waters themselves: salinity, colour, temperature, tidal effects, depth, drifts, weather and of course the local sea-life can vary widely between one sea and another. And it doesn’t even matter if the differences are factually real or just an impression the sailors got, when traveling those seas, as little research about the Black, the Red or the White Seas shows. So naming of seas is also linked to prominent features and experiences made there, by some or all visitors to the area.
At this point, you’ll likely ask yourself: Where is this mad Old Salt going with his ramblings, what is he pointing to? Well, it is as easy as this: Whenever you have to describe or name a body of (salt-)water, ask yourself: what kind of information should my description or name deliver to others? Should they be informed about where this sea lies? Should they get a glimpse of the people and their history there? Or should they get an idea of how it is like to be there, what they could see and hear and feel, if they were where you have been?
Written July 31st, while on Solitude Island in the Weird Seas, while contemplating names for the different waters in, below, and beyond them.