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Bounding main

Q From Kathleen Watness: In the phrase over the bounding main, what is a main and where does it come from? And why bounding? I came across an exchange about a song lyric and what the words actually meant. It got to be a heated discussion.

A The song that was being discussed was presumably this, a children’s song written under a pseudonym by the British organist and composer James Frederick Swift:

Sailing, sailing over the bounding main
Where many a stormy wind shall blow
’Ere Jack comes home again.

Sailing, Sailing, by Godfrey Marks, 1880.

It’s clear enough from this and other examples that it means the open ocean. But as you say, it’s odd: why should main be the sea and why should it bound? That’s enough to arouse disputation, though it might not be worth fisticuffs. The puzzle isn’t easy to resolve because no reference book that I have consulted explains it. Perhaps their editors think it’s self-evident?

Main first. One sense, known from the 1550s, was of “mainland”, as in a famous passage by John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.

From about the same time people were also using main as a short form of main sea, the open sea, the part outside territorial waters.

They dare not venture into the main, but hovering by the shore, timorously sail from one place to another.

Travellers Breviat, by Giovanni Botero, translated by Richard Johnson, 1603. I’ve slightly modernised the spelling.

Both these senses are obsolete but most of us lighted upon main in childhood when reading about pirates, perhaps in sentences like this one:

His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were; about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883.

By “places”, we can tell Stevenson is using Spanish Main for land. That was its first meaning, from the early 1700s, using main for “mainland”. The Spanish Main was the part of the coast of America nominally under Spanish control that stretched roughly from the isthmus of Panama to the mouth of the Orinoco.

However, some writers have meant by it a broad area that includes the mainland, the adjacent Caribbean islands and the waters around them. And confusion between the two senses of main has led to a belief that the Spanish Main is a seascape, part of the Caribbean Sea.

“Where did you break your Queen’s peace?”
“On the sea called the Spanish Main, though ’tis no more Spanish than my doublet,” says the elder.

Rewards and Fairies, by Rudyard Kipling, 1910.

The idea is supported by all those parts of ships so fondly described in seafaring fiction: main-mast and main-course, main-brace and main-deck. Surely main must be nautical?

We now only encounter the nautical sense of main in set expressions, of which another is rolling main. This is a little older than bounding main, turning up first in the early eighteenth century in translations of classical Roman authors such as Horace and Virgil and in Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. It was more common than bounding main until about the middle of the nineteenth century.

Bounding might mean the marking of a boundary, or somebody leaping forward in great strides. It’s a poetic image and so may be allowed some looseness in interpretation. But the earliest case of bounding main I’ve so far uncovered suggests movement:

Fam’d Albion’s Sons, whose Rock encircling Coast,
Emblem of Virtues in your noble Race,
Repels each boisterous Billow of the Deep,
And stands triumphant o’er the bounding Main.

The Sentiments of Truth, by Mr P———y, reproduced in Volume 9 (September) of The Poetical Calendar, by Francis Fawkes and William Woty, 1763.

So the bounding main is the open ocean with its waves that surge, billow and break. A later poem makes the image still clearer:

Toss’d at the mercy of the bounding main,
Now mounting high upon the billowy steep,
Now plung’d in an unfathomable deep.

The History of the Incas Continued, by John Stagg, 1805.

The phrase is evocative and was borrowed by other poets, including Byron and Tennyson. Long ago it became a cliché to be mocked:

Add to this delay the deplorable fact that the bounding main bounded that night with more than its accustomed freedom and buoyancy, and I think I may leave the fertile imagination of the candid reader himself to suggest unaided the correct conclusion that we all enjoyed thirty-six hours of almost speechless misery on the heaving bosom of the blue Mediterranean.

Eclectic Magazine, July 1888.

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Page created 26 Jul. 2014

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Last modified: 26 July 2014.