Which Word Wednesday: Ocean vs. Sea

By June 15, 2011 language No Comments

Most people would not consider an 840-mile road trip in a minivan with three adults and three kids a good time. But I did just that, and I can honestly say it was an exceptional trip.

My mom, my sister, and my sister’s three kids loaded up my sister’s minivan and hit the road to Destin, Florida. The drive was full of chatting, Mad Libs, movies, journaling, Third Day, and Jennifer Knapp. Once there, we saw plenty of wave jumping, body boarding, sand digging, and beach combing. It was a great trip!

Imaginations in Motion

In honor of the fun, this week’s Which Word Wednesday entry takes a look at ocean vs. sea. I was curious about the distinctions, so here’s the scoop, starting with the Oxford American Dictionary definitions:

ocean :: noun
a very large expanse of sea, in particular, each of the main areas into which the sea is divided geographically

sea :: noun
the expanse of salt water that covers most of the earth’s surface and surrounds its landmasses

Sounds to me like all salt-water bodies are seas, and the largest ones that are geographically defined are called oceans.

In The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language, Ron Evans tells us, “Although sea is sometimes loosely applied to the ocean, sea more precisely represents a saltwater body that is part of an ocean or that opens into an ocean.”1

hmmm . . . these definitions contradict. Now what? A quick online search found this response at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration):

Seas are smaller than oceans and are usually located where the land and ocean meet. Typically, seas are partially enclosed by land.2

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What’s my WWW verdict? I’m going with Evans and NOAA. But I think the word sea sounds more poetic than ocean, so I would also allow for its use to refer to salty water in a general, but not a technical, context.

What’s your verdict? Do you know your ocean from your sea? And would you dare to drive 800-plus miles to get to a saltwater body, no matter what it may be called? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 152.
2. NOAA, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oceanorsea.html
Photo: Imaginations in Motion by Erin Straza, 2011

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