- July 18, 2011
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
I have a fondness for the adjective pelagic. It means of the open sea and comes from the Greek word pelagos for sea. It shares a little with the similar Greek word for the mysterious sea people who lived in Greece before the Dorians, the Pelasgians, who came from no one knows where and then disappeared back into history.
Pelagic is a soft-sounding, evocative word, creating a sense of otherworldliness, of things far from the dominion of man. It tends to be used in two senses: for seabirds, such as the albatross, that spend most of their time out in mid-ocean; or for fish, like the sunfish, that live and travel great distances on the uppermost levels of the sea.
Unfortunately, I have some cause for unhappiness as the scientists have got their rationalist hands on pelagic, and turned it into a technical adjective. For them, pelagic describes things of the ocean, from the low tide mark out to the open sea, and includes the whole volume of water from the surface to the bottom.
Scientists have taken the poetic and precise pelagic, which described the uppermost layer of the open ocean, and stripped the magic out of it. They have tacked on some Greek-derived prefixes and used it as a technical tag for all the depths of the seas.
Epi- is a Greek prefix with a variety of meanings from: upon, beside, among, on the outside, above, over. The epipelagic zone from the surface down to 200 m is the zone where there is enough light for photosynthesis, so most of the ocean’s plants and animals live there.
Meso- is the Greek prefix for middle. The mesopelagic zone is from 200 to 1000 metres below the ocean surface. It is also known as the twilight zone because only some light penetrates this deep but not enough for photosynthesis.
Bathys is the Greek word for deep. No light penetrates this zone so it is also known as the midnight zone. The bathyal zone or bathypelagic zone extends from 1000 to 4000 metres depths.
Abyss derives from the Greek word meaning bottomless. The abyssopelagic layer (from 4,000 to 6,000 metres) contains the very deep communities near the bottom of the ocean.
The zone gets its name from the Greek’s word for hell, Hades. The hadopelagic or hadal zone defines the deepest trenches in the ocean below 6,000 metres.
I include benthic for completeness. It is derived from bathys as the Greek word for deep. Relating to the bottom of the ocean or lake or to the organisms that live there.
The scientifically derived zones have some interest for word buffs but are never going to find their way into poetry. Would Shakespeare have begun Richard III thus?
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the abyssopelagic zone buried*.
[*In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.]