|Surge at Porthcawl|
Photo by Ben Salter
Noun & verb. Mid-16th century.
[Old Norse bylgja (Swedish bölja, Danish bølge), from Germanic base related to that of BELLY noun.]
A1 noun. A great wave (or a stretch of water, especially the sea,
or transferred of flame, smoke, sound, moving bodies, etc.);
poetical (singular & in plural) the sea. M16
A2 noun obsolete. A swell on the sea. M16-E17
B verb intrans. Rise in billows; surge, swell; undulate. L16
Clouds billow, smoke billows, the salted sails of a storm-striped ship billow. The rotund form of this word is so perfect, so wonderfully evocative of its meaning, that even its initial B looks like the full, open sails of a magnificent galleon, or perhaps a rolling cumulus spreading lazily across a morning sky.
I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be
That billow originally referred to the sea is a surprise to many, more familiar as most are with its descriptive definitions, applied to fire, clouds, smoke and the like. Similarly, its connection to belly seems unlikely at first, but considering belly's origin of belig (bag) in Old English, derived as that it from a Germanic base meaning swell, or be inflated, the connections start to become clear, and billow takes its place as one of the most seductively descriptive words in the English language.