As far as I understand, the largest ocean on Earth is know worldwide as the Pacific Ocean, a name given by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519. However, it is surprising to me that such a name stuck given that it is an ocean that was known for several millennia before then by literate cultures such as those in Japan, China and Korea.

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    Same applies to most other geographic names: Australia, New Zealand, Greenland, America, Africa, Asia,...to all oceans etc. All these names were given by the Europeans, though they surely had some other names. And the reasons seem evident.
    – Alex
    Dec 26, 2019 at 23:00
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    @Alex In most of your examples the lack of geographical knowledge made that the peoples of those places didn't have a name for it. For example, native Americans had names only for the territories they were familiar with, but they didn't have a name for the continent they inhabited. But this would not be the case for an ocean. Dec 26, 2019 at 23:05
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    Very good question! The answer lies in the fact that your premise is incorrect. Namely, lack of geographical knowledge [means people] didn't have a name for it . . . But this would not be the case for an ocean is not, in fact, true. China f.e. has names for the seas on its coast - today they are called the Bo Sea, Yellow Sea, East & South China Seas. But the Chinese did not have a name for the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, because the Pacific is an arbitrary division of the World Ocean we settled on by convention. The concept did not therefore exist to the ancient Chinese or Japanese.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 27, 2019 at 12:32
  • Perhaps more to the point, why did that name stick when it's so inappropriate a description? Oh, and French uses the same term, Stille oceean in Dutch sounds very different but has a very similar meaning, Pazifik See in German, Spanish kept it, as could be expected, Italian is l'oceano Pacifico... Dec 27, 2019 at 16:45
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    One guess: If a culture has no access to two oceans, how could they have particular names for oceans? They could have just a generic word for ocean, or just names for smaller portions of sea they knew, such as the chinese cited above. Some brazilian tribes - that lived near large rivers - even had the same word for large (km-wide) rivers and the only ocean they knew, besides separate words for small rivers.
    – Luiz
    Dec 27, 2019 at 18:51

1 Answer 1


This reminds me a bit of the old internet hacker/cracker argument. Originally "hacking" was a word for any generalized kind of computer tinkering, and had largely positive connotations. However, mass media felt the most interesting facet of hacking was computer security intrusion, and proceeded to act is if that's all the word meant. A lot of us on the internet tried to popularize "cracking" for that, to get hacking's good name back. However, it didn't matter because the people making mass media weren't listening to us, and didn't really care. We old-school "hackers" lost our word.

This story illustrates an old adage that's as important in History as it is in trolling: Its nearly impossible to win a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

In the case of the Pacific, all those other societies who knew about that ocean before Magellan did not have industrial printing presses. Any discussion they had about it with others using their native terms was restricted to word-of-mouth and very inefficient hand-writing.

When it first became relevant to Europeans was when Magellan's expedition crossed it as part of its circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-1522. He termed it "Pacífico" because it was a much more peaceful body of water than the hazardous waters around the cape of the South American continent.

This date is important because the printing press had been invented about 80 years earlier, and by this time was in heavy use in Europe. While Europeans didn't have much access to the few East Asian manuscripts floating around (and few could read those that were), and next to no access to actual East Asians to talk about it, they were comparatively flooded with their own printed material about it. All of this material of course used their own terms for the ocean. It looks like an early alternative was Sea of Magellan, but they eventually converged on Magellan's name for it, which in English is "Pacific Ocean".

A few languages with other names for that body continue(d) to use them of course, but for those that found themselves in need, one could see where they'd most likely just use a translation or sound-alike for the term used in the foreign-language work they are referencing or translating. Due to Europe's gargantuan lead in printed material, that's typically going to be the European term.

So the reason Europe's name mostly won out was because at the time Europeans had the only culture that was buying ink by the barrel.

  • This feels a little incomplete, given the "discovery" tag and that an important colloquialism counts the entire ocean as "South Sea", like here even up to Alaska. Just like American place names, things are mixed up. And then there is this possible tautology: 'in European languages the European naming won out'? Dec 27, 2019 at 17:39

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