Dear Word Detective: I have always been an avid fan of word history but there is one word that I have never been able to find a definitive background on: “beach.” The original Germanic/English for “beach” is “strand.” Today we only use “strand” and “stranded” when a whale is caught on shore or a person is lost on an island (or away from means of communication). Latin-based languages have some form of “playa.” Where does “beach” come from and how did it so completely overtake “strand”? — Matthew Waldman.
As you note, “strand” seems to have shuffled off the stage of everyday usage but was once the standard term for what we now call a “beach.” Dating back to Old English, “strand” is a bit of a mystery, but it seems to hark back to the Old Norse “strond,” meaning shore, and some authorities trace it back to the Indo-European root “ster,” meaning “to stretch out.” The original meaning of “strand” was “the area of the shore between high and low tide marks,” but by the 13th century it was being used for any shoreline and even docks and quays on a river. The street called “the Strand” in London once lay alongside the Thames River.
Of course, how much fun a beach can be depends to a certain extent on where you sit. For the captain of a sailing ship, running aground on a “strand” was bad news indeed, so by the early 17th century “strand” had become a verb meaning “to drive or force aground on a shore,” and by the 19th century a figurative use of the verb meaning “to leave helpless” had arisen, setting the stage for millions of travelers to be “stranded” by bad weather every winter.
If the story of “strand” is a little murky, the history of “beach” is a major puzzle. It’s a more recent word than “strand,” first popping up in English in the early 16th century, and the initial meaning of “beach” was not the expanse of sand we normally think of, but simply the smooth pebbles and rocks found on the seashore. The expansion of “beach” to cover the whole shore in the late 16th century was probably due to a popular misunderstanding of the “pebbles” connotation of “beach” in phrases such as “walk on the beach.”
As for the origin of “beach,” theories range from the Old Norse “bakki” (“bank,” as of a stream) to the Old English “baece” (stream) to “beach” being a mutation of “bleach” (as stones are bleached by the sun and water).
So why do we now say “beach” and not “strand”? Shakespeare did his part to popularize “beach” in his works, for one thing. But it may be primarily because, by the 16th century, “strand” was being used to mean docks and the like, leaving “beach” to take on the specific meaning of “sandy shore of the ocean.” Besides, “the Strand Boys” would have had real problems getting a record deal.