September 26, 2004

Ocian in view! Oh! The Joy!

According to this CNN report, the U.S. Mint's new nickels feature a new profile of the well-known American linguist Thomas Jefferson. The reverse side will come in two kinds, one with the traditional buffalo, and the other featuring the Pacific Ocean, inscribed with the words that William Clark almost wrote in his journal when he reached the mouth of the Columbia River: "Ocean in view! O! The Joy!"

But what he actually wrote, it seems, was "Ocian in view! O! The Joy!" CNN explains the substitution:

According to spokeswoman Becky Bailey, the Mint considered the issue, and chose to use the modern spelling.

"We didn't want to confuse anyone into thinking we couldn't spell," she said.

Since the word is obviously derived from Latin oceanus and (the Greek equivalent which I don't have time to render into html entities) via French océan, I was surprised to see the suggestion that this was an old spelling rather than just a misspelling. Of course, there was no such thing as a misspelling in the libertarian English orthography of Shakespeare's time, but by November 1805, when Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific, things had settled down considerably. Even so, the great linguist Thomas Jefferson himself was known to misspell a word or two from time to time (a fact in which I take great personal comfort), so I thought maybe Clark was just exhibiting a similar sort of orthographic independence.

It's true that the OED has the following spellings for ocean among its citations: "occean", "occian", "oxian", "occion", "occione", "occyon", "occyan", "occeane", "occiane", "occæan", "ocian", "ociane", "ocyane", and (of course) "ocean". But (except for "ocean") these all seem to date from the fine free old days when men and women spelled as they pleased. In fact, the most recent non-"ocean" citations (based on a quick scan of the entry) are:

1545 Brinklowe Compl. 45, I thynck it is as well possyble for the ocyane se to be without water.
1591 Spenser Ruins of Time 541 For from the one he could to th' other coast, Stretch his strong thighes, and th' Occæan ouerstride.

And even from the late 16th century, most of the citations are spelled "ocean":

1590 Spenser F.Q. II. ii. 22 A Beare and Tygre being met..on Lybicke Ocean wide.
1591 Shakes. Two Gent. II. vii. 69 A thousand oathes, an Ocean of his tears,..Warrant me welcome to my Protheus.

So I'm quite skeptical that "ocian" was a spelling current at the time of Clark's education, two hundred years later. I think this was just an example of good old American freedom of expression.

Can you imagine the fuss, though, if the first explorer on Mars sends back a misspelled journal entry? Oh! The Shame!

[Update: I'm puzzled about how to square the CNN story with this version of Clark's journal, which treats the expedition's first sight of the Pacific as follows:

Encamped under a high hill on the starboard side, opposite to a rock situated half a mile from the shore, about 50 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. We with difficulty found a place clear of the tide and sufficiently large to lie on, and the only place we could get was on round stones on which we laid our mats. Rain continued moderately all day, and two Indians accompanied us from the last village. They were detected in stealing a knife and returned. Our small canoe, which got separated in a fog this morning, joined us this evening from a large island situated nearest the larboard side, below the high hills on that side, the river being too wide to see either the form, shape, or size of the islands on the larboard side.

Great joy in camp. We are in view of the ocean, this great Pacific Ocean which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roaring or noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores (as I suppose) may be heard distinctly.

Captain Clark, 7 November 1805


[Update 9/26/2004: Emily Bender emails that

I just read your Language Log entry on "Ocian in view!", and had a tidbit you might be interested in. For the past few months Smithsonian Magazine has been running excerpts of the Lewis & Clark journals, and the spelling is uniformly pretty awful. Given that background, I'd be surprised if "ocian" was anything other than another misspelling.

(Some of?) this feature is available on line here, and Emily is absolutely right. The most non-standard spellings come from the journals of other members of the expedition, for instance Sergeant Charles Floyd, who wrote on August 2, 1804 that

The Indianes Came whare we had expected thay fired meney Guns when thay Came in Site of us and we ansered them withe the Cannon.

but William Clark shows a robust orthographic independence of his own, as in this entry for August 4, 1804:

Set out early- (at 7 oClock last night we had a Violent wind from the NW Som little rain Succeeded, the wind lasted with violence for one hour after the wind it was clear Sereen and Cool all night.) proceeded on passed thro betwen Snags which was quit across the Rivr the Channel Confined within 200 yards one Side a Sand pt. S S. the other a Bend, the Banks washing away & trees falling in constantly for 1 mile, abov this place is the remains of an old Tradeing establishment L.S. where Petr. Crusett one of our hands Stayed two years and traded with the Mahars.

It seems that the version of the journals from which I took the (standard-spelling) quote above come from a later published version, which was presumably copy-edited by someone. However, it still lacks the "O! The Joy!" quote.

The Smithsonian Magazine's publication of the journal selections is proceeding month-by-month (in a sort of monthly bloggish fashion), so I guess we'll probably find out the answer in their November issue. ]

[Update #3: We don't have to wait that long, as the University of Nebraska Press has a website devoted to Gary E. Moulton's edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals. In the time available to me, I didn't find the "O! Joy!" post, but this entry (due to Clark, from Nov. 17, 1805) makes Clark's spelling propensities clear:

at half past 1 oClock Capt. Lewis and his Party returned haveing around passd. Point Disapointment and Some distance on the main Ocian to the N W. Several Indians followed him & Soon after a canoe with wapto roots, & [ML: Liquorice] [1] boiled, which they gave as presents, in return for which we gave more than the worth to Satisfy them a bad practice to receive a present of Indians, as they are never Satisfied in return. our hunters killed 3 Deer & th fowler 2 Ducks & 4 brant I Surveyed a little on the corse & made Some observns. The Chief of the nation below us Came up to See us [2] the name of the nation is Chin-nook and is noumerous live principally on fish roots a fiew Elk and fowls. they are well armed with good Fusees. I directed all the men who wished to See more of the Ocean to Get ready to Set out with me on tomorrow day light. the following men expressed a wish to accompany me i'e' Serj. Nat Pryor Serjt. J. Ordway, Jo: Fields R. Fields, Jo. Shannon, Jo Colter, William Bratten, Peter Wiser, Shabono & my Servant York. all others being well Contented with what part of the Ocean & its curiosities which Could be Seen from the vicinity of our Camp.

Score (in this paragraph): "Ocian" 1, "Ocean" 2. "Modern spelling", indeed!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 26, 2004 10:30 PM