Billow, a late addition

Words about words


Image: Charles Earner Kempe
Richard Hakluyt pictured in a part of the stained glass window in the west window of the south transept of Bristol Cathedral.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word billow, which means a swell on the ocean, is not known before 1550 but is believed to be an adoption of the Old Norse word bylgja, which in everyday usage also is the root of the modern Norwegian noun bølge (“wave”).

Billow first appeared in 1560 in an attribution to Capt. Anthony Jenkinson, an explorer on behalf of the English crown and the Muscovy Company, founded in 1555 by a body of English merchants for trading with Russia. The attribution read, “And much adone to keepe our barke from sinking, the billowe was so great.” In 1582 the attribution appeared in print in “Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America” by Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616), an English writer recognized for promoting the English colonization of North America. Hakluyt was an ordained priest who held key positions at Bristol Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and was also the personal chaplain to Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State under the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He is commemorated in a stained-glass portrait in the west window of the south transept of Bristol Cathedral.

In 1614, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) published The History of the World, a book so important in the knowledge of civilization that replicas of it are still in print (Portsmouth, NH, Sagwan Press, Feb. 9, 2018, 482-page paperback, ISBN 978-1377264028). In it, he relates a remark by Alexander the Great about sailing down the Hydaspis, an Indian river with a swift stream: “That branch of Indus…[is] so large and deepe, and by reason thereof so great a billow, as it endangered his whole Fleet.”

In the centuries thereafter, billow appeared often in literature. Among the more recent instances is in the novel Henry Brocken published in 1904 by British novelist Walter De La Mare (1873-1956), that has a description of an incident in which “The hosts of our pursuers paused, billow-like, reared, and scattered.”

This article originally appeared in the January 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.