How did the oceans get their names?

by Ciarán Donnelly

How did the oceans get their names Besotw Education

On October 21st, 1520, Ferdinand Magellan discovered straits at the south of Chile that connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

The straits he found are now referred to as the Strait(s) of Magellan and he also gave the Pacific Ocean its name.

To commemorate 500 years since this landmark, we thought we’d explore some English language words and phrases regarding the sea. We will use the incredible journey of Magellan as a template for this exploration.

Firstly, who was Ferdinand Magellan?

Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who led the first circumnavigation of the world. He was originally looking for a passage to the Spice Islands by sailing west, rather than sailing past South Africa and east.

On September 20th, 1519, Magellan and his crew of 270 men on 5 ships set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain on this epic journey. Three years later, only one ship and 18 men of the original crew would return. The first challenge was to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Why is it called the Atlantic Ocean?

The Atlantic Ocean is named after the Greek Titan Atlas.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned to the western most part of the earth to hold the weight of the sky and stars on his shoulders.

So, everything past the Rock of Gibraltar was thought to be all sea and was called the ‘Sea of Atlas’, this eventually became known as the Atlantic Ocean.

Did you know: The word ocean comes from the Greek Titan Oceanus

On November 29th, 1519, they reached Brazil.

They then started their search for a passage to the Spice Islands.

The Strait(s) of Magellan

On October 21st, 1520, the crew found the entry to the passage they had been looking for. They became the first Europeans to use this passage and it has been named the Strait(s) of Magellan in his honour.

It took around a month to navigate their way through the Straits of Magellan to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Have a look at the other things that have been named after Magellan:

  • The Magellanic Clouds
  • 4055 Magellan (An Asteroid)
  • Magelhaens (Lunar Crater)
  • Magelhaens (Martian Crater)

Why is it called the Pacific Ocean?

As Magellan left the Straits of Magellan and entered the Pacific Ocean, he named it Mar Pacifico. In both Portuguese and Spanish, this means ‘peaceful sea’.

Magellan and his crew were expecting a short sail to the Spice Islands, but little did they know they had just entered the biggest ocean in the world.

The words pacific, pacifist, and peaceful, all stem from the Latin pax/pac- (meaning peace).

Eventually, Magellan and his crew became the first Europeans to sail the Pacific Ocean when they reached land in March, after spending 3 months at sea!

Unfortunately, it was not a peaceful experience when the crew landed at the Philippines and Magellan was killed on April 27th, 1521, in battle. He would not be part of the 2 remaining ships to attempt to sail the Indian Ocean.

Why is it called the Indian Ocean?

The Indian Ocean is named after India this name can be dated back to the 1500s. It is called the Indian Ocean because of its geographical coastline and its use as a route to India. The Latin name was Oceanus Oreintalis Indicus (Indian Eastern Ocean).

The last of the 5 ships, the Victoria, started to cross the Indian Ocean on January 25th, 1522, and reached Seville, Spain, on September 8th, 1522.

There is one more very important body of water that has an interesting history and etymology.

Ferdinand Magellan was Portuguese. However, he sailed under the Spanish flag as part of a Spanish expedition. The Mediterranean Sea connects the Mediterranean countries to the Atlantic Ocean.

Why is it called the Mediterranean Sea?

The Romans called this the Mediterranean Sea because it was the centre of the known world and had land on all four sides. It comes from the Latin mediterraneus, medius = middle and tera = land.


I hope you enjoyed this blog. If you have any questions, anything to add, or would like any other explanations, please leave a comment below.

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Further reading

If you enjoyed thig blog, read some of our other blogs such as:

Cleopatra in 2020 – Emojis vs hieroglyphs for blogging

What is the origin of the name Bluetooth?

Why do Australians speak English?

Or read the books below:

Over The Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the World by Laurence Bergreen