‘Mediterranean’: the sea in the middle of the earth


Mediterranean Basin and Near East before 1000 AD - topographic map

Mediterranean Basin and Near East before 1000 AD – topographic map
image: Wikimedia Commons – Flappiefh



The Mediterranean (Sea) is the almost landlocked sea separating southern Europe from Africa, connected with the Atlantic Ocean by the Strait of Gibraltar, with the Black Sea by the Bosphorus, and (since 1869) with the Red Sea by the Suez Canal.

The adjective and noun Mediterranean is from the classical-Latin adjective mediterrāneus, meaning inland, far from the coast.

The English word Mediterranean has occasionally been used in this sense; by Philemon Holland (1552-1637) for example, in The historie of the world: commonly called, the Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus (London, 1634), a translation of Naturalis Historia (Natural History – 77), by the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79):

All [trees] doe require alike the seasonable showers of winter, as also those before budding time. In which regard, the winds Northeast are better than the Southern, and such winters be most kindly. Semblably, by the same reason the Mediterranean or mid-land parts of any country are for this purpose preferred before the maritime or sea-coasts.

The Latin word is composed of:
– medius, meaning middle,
– terraearth,
– āneus, a suffix forming adjectives.

(A word composed on this pattern is subterranean, meaning existingoccurring, or doneunder the earth.)

Latin mediterrāneus is after ancient Greek μεσόγαιος (= mesόgaios), meaning situated in the middle of land:
– the combining form μεσο- (= meso-), from μέσος (= mésos), meaning middle, is also found in the name Μεσοποταμία (= Mesopotamía), from μεσοποτάμιος (= mesopotámios), between rivers (Greek ποταμός (= potamόs) meant river – Mesopotamia is an ancient region of Asia lying between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates);
the element γήϊος (= géïos), of the earth, from γῆ (= ), earth – cf. words such as geography.

In classical Latin, the Mediterranean Sea was usually called mare nostrumour sea (also mare internum and mare intestinum). Mediterraneus only began to designate it in post-classical Latin (3rd or 4th century) in the phrase mare Mediterraneum. The original sense of the proper name seems to have been the sea in the middle of the earth rather than the sea enclosed by land—as explained by Isidore of Seville (circa 560-636), Spanish archbishop and Doctor of the Church, in Originum sive Etymologiarum (The Origins or Etymologies):

The Mediterranean Sea (De mediterraneo mari) The Great Sea is the one that flows from the Ocean out of the west, turns to the south, and finally stretches to the north. It is called ‘great’ because the other seas are smaller in comparison with it. This is also called the Mediterranean because it flows through the ‘middle of the land’ (media terrae) all the way to the East, separating Europe, Africa, and Asia.
—from The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville – Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof – Cambridge University Press, 2006.

In English, the Mediterranean has also been called the mid-earth sea and the sea of middle earth (later the middle-earth sea); for example, in his 1397 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things – circa 1240), by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, John Trevisa wrote:

Þe grete see of myddilerþe* cometh oute of þe Weste and oute of ocean […] And is yclepid see of þe myddil erþe ffor he passeþ by þe myddel of þe erþe anone to þe este.
     in contemporary English:
The great sea of middle earth* comes out of the West and out of the ocean […] And is called sea of the middle earth because it passes by the middle of the earth as far as to the East.

* in the original Latin text: Mare magnum siue mediterraneum (magnum: great; siue: or)

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