Saturday, 29 June 2013


Wave, Surge, Sea, Ocean, Swell, Crash, Lighthouse
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
(Emily Dickinson)

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.


  1. Yes, I am suitably surprised by the 'real' definition of billow as a rather aggressive word - I have always thought of it as a gentle word and have images of freshly washed sheets on a line, billowing in a breeze. My illusions are shattered...

    1. It still has those meanings, Debbie, and I think its definitions as a great wave and the sea are steadily slipping into obsolescence. While thinking about billow (both as a noun and a verb), I don't think it has a particularly gentle connotation - a billow of smoke, or billowing sails, for example, to me emphasise both the shapes formed and the intensity of the action; a billowing sail even conjures an almost violent, if stately, energy.

  2. In the song "It Is Well With My Soul" there's a line that goes: "When sorrows like sea billows roll."

    1. Hi Brian. I didn't know this song - it can be listened to on YouTube here. It's very sad, but a great example of the word.

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