Dear Word Detective: I just spent some time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and want to know if you can tell me the origins of two words. The first is “causeway.” I know it’s a bridge but where did this word come from? Also, we used the causeway to cross the Albemarle Sound. Where did the word “Sound” used in this context come from? — E. P.
Cool. I’ve never been to the Outer Banks, partly because I’ve always been afraid that they (you know, Them) would slap one of those lame “OBX” stickers on our car when I wasn’t looking. I’d much rather sport something truly interesting on our car, something along the lines of “We Went to West Florida Reptile World and Saw the Giant Flying Purple Iguana.” Something like that would inspire unquenchable envy in the cars that pass us. To me, “OBX” just makes your car look like a piece of luggage.
A “causeway” is, of course, a raised road, usually built on an embankment, often running across water or swampy land. It’s not really a bridge, since it is usually solidly resting on the earth for its length. Causeways can, in fact, connect small islands and the like to the mainland over distances that would be impractical for bridges.
There seems to be a difference of opinion between various etymological authorities over the exact roots of “causeway.” Everyone agrees that our modern “causeway” evolved from the older term “causey way,” meaning essentially the same thing as “causeway.” The dispute is over the origins of “causey,” meaning a raised mound or footpath. One theory has “causey” coming from the Vulgar Latin “calciata via,” meaning “limestone road” (“calx” being Latin for limestone), and posits that causeways used to be made with crushed limestone. The other theory traces “causey” to the Latin “calciare,” meaning “to stamp with the feet,” and holds that the name refers to the fact that causeways were constructed by stamping down earth and rock to make the mound firm. Whatever the truth, “causey” first appeared in English around the 12 century but has now been almost entirely replaced by “causeway,” which showed up in the 14th century.
“Sound,” meaning a body of water between an island and the mainland or an inlet of the sea (such as Long Island Sound, where I spent my childhood summers dodging jellyfish), has nothing to do with the kind of “sound” we hear (which comes from the Latin “sonus”). This watery “sound” comes from the Old Norse “sund,” which meant both “channel or strait” as well as “swimming.” (In fact, the Germanic root of “sund” was “swem,” which also gave us “swim”) “Sound” in Old English actually meant “the act of swimming” as well as “sea” or “water,” and in modern English “sound” was long used to mean the “swimming bladder” of fish, an internal organ that helps the fish regulate its buoyancy. Our modern use of “sound” to mean “body of water” didn’t arise until the 16th century.