Monday, January 19, 2009


Dave Gill of Traverse City wrote the following:

While reading a book about submarines, certain phrases caught my attention: “in these waters” or “while in treacherous waters” or “falling overboard in these waters,” etc. I guess I can understand that if a person was writing or speaking about all five of the Great Lakes inclusively, “these waters” would apply. However, if the subject is a specific lake or a specific location and point of time, I would think the plural use of “these waters” would not make grammatical sense.

I don't have a satisfactory answer. Chambers-Murray Latin Dictionary cites Cicero as using aquae (waters) to designate watering-places and mineral springs. The Oxford English Dictionary says that around the year 1,000, the plural began to be used in English instead of the singular, especially with reference to flowing water or to water moving in waves. The American Heritage Dictionary defines waters as “a particular stretch of sea or ocean, especially that of a state or country: escorted out of British waters.”

However, none of these reveal why the plural form is used. My suspicion is that it was influenced by Biblical use. The Bible hadn't been fully translated into English by the year 1,000, but those who were literate would have read the Latin Vulgate version.

Right off the bat, in Genesis 1:2, we read " et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas." [God moved upon the face of the waters.] Aquas is the Latin word for water, and it is rendered in its objective plural form. Strong's Concordance of the Bible goes on to give about 3 full columns of the plural use in both Old and New Testaments, so it was deeply ingrained in western culture. Most people will recognize, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters” or “Cast thy bread upon the waters . . . .

But I don't have definitive proof that this influenced English word choice.

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