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Big pond

Q From Ari: Would you happen to know how the term the big pond came about in reference to the Atlantic ocean? The inference obviously is that it’s a humorous and ironic label, but do you know the history?

A For enlightenment here, I turned to the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has quite a lot of notes on big pond and its variations, such as great pond and herring-pond.

The sayings are surprisingly old, with the first example of great pond being recorded in 1641 and herring-pond in 1686. Early examples are all from writers in various British North American colonies and so it’s reasonable to suppose that the expressions originated there.

After all, aside from the comparatively few sailors who travelled these waters, colonists would have been the people most aware of the size of the Atlantic Ocean. After you had survived the stormy and protracted sea crossing from Britain, you either tried to forget about it or you made a joke of it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Apr. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 April 2002.