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shameless pleading

“Spring” and “neap” tides

Stop whining and keep bailing.

Dear Word Detective: A reference book about nautical navigation says that the root for “spring” (tides) is from the Viking word for “lack of.” For “neap” (tides) it says the meaning is from the Viking word for “abundance.” I am having trouble verifying this statement; can you help? — Philip.

Gee, I miss the ocean. Although I live in rural Ohio now, I grew up on Long Island Sound. Literally. My family set me adrift in a small, leaky dinghy when I was twelve, and for weeks I lived off the flotsam and jetsam of passing merchant ships. Fortunately, I was adopted by a school of talking dolphins, who taught me to catch fish in mid-air and other crowd-pleasing tricks, and eventually I got a job at Sea World. That turned out to be excellent training for journalism, and here we are. Now I’m gonna go back and actually read your question.

Well, that’s strange. I really did grow up near the Sound, even sailed my own little sailboat as a kid, but I’d somehow missed learning about “neap” and “spring” tides. We just paid attention to when the tide was going to be “high” or “low,” mostly so we’d be able to avoid running aground on sand bars at low tide. “Neap” and “spring” tides are a bit more special than just “high” and “low.”

A “neap tide” occurs just after the first and third quarters of the moon, when the high tide is at its lowest point, i.e., the lowest height above “low” tide (and thus there is the least difference between high and low tides). Apparently at those times the moon, earth and sun are arrayed so that the gravitational pull of the sun does not add to the pull of the moon as it usually does. “Neap” first appeared in Old English (in the form “nepflod,” or “neap flood”), and the origin of the word is a complete mystery. By the way, I’d be a bit leery of the navigational advice of an author who claims “neap” comes from a “Viking” (presumably Old Norse) word meaning “abundance.” Not only is there no evidence for that, but it doesn’t even make sense. How would the lowest high tide be considered “abundance” of anything except wet sand and dangerous reefs?

It is true that “neap” appears to have relatives in German, Swedish and Danish, but those words were probably ultimately borrowed from English, so that’s no help. The one theory that seems plausible ties “neap” to the English words “nip” and/or “neb” (meaning the bill or beak of a bird). You could make a case that when the level of high tide converges with that of low tide, the difference between the two narrows like the beak of a bird, or perhaps something that is “nipped,” squeezed together sharply.

A “spring tide” is the opposite of a “neap tide,” i.e., the point just after either a full or new moon when the high tide reaches its highest point above the level of low tide. Again, the story related in that book doesn’t make sense. Why would the highest high tide come from a word meaning “lack of?” I think the dude has his theories backwards. And as for where the “spring” in “spring tide” came from, that’s easy; we don’t need no stinking Vikings. It’s the common English word “spring.”

The noun and adjective forms of “spring” come from the verb “to spring,” which first appeared in Old English as “springan,” meaning “to burst out, rise up suddenly, leap, etc.” The season we know as “spring” gets its name from the notion of life (plants in particular) bursting forth after being dormant during the winter. But that usage didn’t actually arise until the mid-16th century. The earliest use of “spring” as a noun was in reference to the kind of “spring” where water issues or wells out of the earth, and it is this “rising water” sense of “spring” that gave us “spring tide,” also first appearing in the mid-16th century.

Interestingly, “spring tide” was initially also used to mean “the time of the season of spring” or “springtime.” That’s because the word “tide,” which came from the same Germanic root (“tidiz”) that gave us “time,” originally just meant “time” or “a specific period of time.” So “Yuletide,” a synonym for the time around Christmas, simply means “the time when the Yule log is traditionally burned,” i.e., Christmas. “Tide” wasn’t applied to the periodic fluctuations in ocean levels until the 14th century.

4 comments to “Spring” and “neap” tides

  • BCB

    “The one theory that seems plausible ties “neap” to the English words “nip” and/or “neb” (meaning the bill or beak of a bird). You could make a case that when the level of high tide converges with that of low tide, the difference between the two narrows like the beak of a bird, or perhaps something that is “nipped,” squeezed together sharply.”

    Also, if you did live by the shore, you surely (shorely?) will have noticed that any particularly low tide will bring in a preponderance of seabirds to “beak” at the sea-critters that are usually under water but suddenly are not. Given the usual “common-man” evolution of the language we use, this seems to me more likely than some esoteric theme on squeezing.

  • Louise Hope

    You missed a priceless opportunity to show off by tossing in the other two “tide” words, ebb and flow. Admittedly their respective etymologies wouldn’t take up more than a line and a half, but then you’d have them all tied up in a neat package.

  • You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I will recommend http://www.word-detective.com!

  • It’s a relief to find someone who can epxilan things so well

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