How the oceans got their names
Let’s take a look at the linguistic roots of the world’s five oceans. Before we start, what of ocean itself? The word comes to English via Latin from the Greek ōkeanos, which meant ‘great stream encircling the earth’s disc’. The word ocean originally denoted the whole body of water which the ancient Greeks believed to encompass the earth’s (supposed) single land mass; ocean was used to contrast with known inland seas, such as the Mediterranean (literally ‘in the middle of land’).
Let’s mention this one first, as (linguistically) it’s the least interesting ocean: it is named simply because it is to the south of India.
If you’re wondering whether there’s a link between Pacific and pacify, then you’re not wrong. The name of the ocean was originally a specific use of pacific, meaning ‘peaceful’ or ‘characterized by calmness’. Pacific Ocean derives from Mar Pacifico, the name given in Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish to the body of water in allusion to the calm seas experienced by Ferdinand Magellan on first reaching it in 1520.
Atlantic comes from the Greek Atlantikos, from Atlas, the Titan of Greek mythology who supported the heavens with his great strength. (His image appeared as a frontispiece to early collections of maps in a volume, leading to the modern use of the word atlas.) The term Atlantic originally referred to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, and hence to the sea near the west African coast, and was later extended to refer to the whole ocean.
The Arctic Ocean, unsurprisingly, surrounds the Arctic; that is, the regions around the North Pole. Arctic conceals its origins rather more successfully; it comes from the Greek arktos, meaning ‘bear’ – and also ‘Ursa Major’ and ‘pole star’. The connection between bear and star comes from the story in Greek mythology that the nymph Callisto was turned into a bear and placed as a constellation in the heavens by Zeus.
The Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean, is defined in opposition to the Arctic: Antarctic simply means ‘opposite to the Arctic’. Both Antarctic Ocean and Southern Ocean are in common use as terms, and were originally used in reference to this body of water around the same time, albeit different centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) currently dates Antarctic Ocean to 1699 and Southern Ocean to 1702.