sailing o'er the bounty main [bounding]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by sirgawain, Feb 2, 2009.

  1. sirgawain Senior Member

    madrid, spain
    english/usa - living in madrid
    This line comes from an anonymous song - Does anyone know if a more precise source exists?

    Also, what is the "bounty main"? I understand "main" as the open ocean, but what is the sense here of "bounty" as an adjective?

    Thanks for help........
  2. JamesM

    JamesM Senior Member

    I thought it was "bounding main", not "bounty main", with "bounding" meaning "leaping", as if the waves were leaping.

    There is this lyric that I learned as a folk song. I am afraid I don't know if it is attributable to a specific lyricist:
    Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,
    For many a stormy wind shall blow ere Jack comes home again.
    Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,
    For many a stormy wind shall blow ere Jack comes home again

    My children learned it from a videotape of songs for children.
  3. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    It is not "bounty main". It is the bounding main.
  4. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    It was in fact written in 1880 by "Godfrey Marks", which was the pseudonym used by James Frederick Swift.
  5. JamesM

    JamesM Senior Member

    Thank you, GWB.
  6. Hogwaump

    Hogwaump Senior Member

    USA, WV
    English - USA
    Actually, that rhyme predates Godfrey Marks, and he copied by ear with little understanding of nautical context.
    "Main" is sailor-speak for "mainland," and has nothing to do with water. The "main" in question was the famous Spanish Main, from which much gold and silver was hauled back to Spain. That is where "bounty" comes in.
    The original version began:
    Sailing, sailing, o'er to the Bounty Main
  7. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Actually, it does not predate Godfrey Marks at all; vide infra.

    You are mistaken. As you can see here on the Merriam-Webster page for the definition of "main", one meaning is "high sea":

    This meaning is found in Shakespeare. Note in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1, where Antonio says
    You may as well go stand upon the beach
    And bid the main flood bate his usual height;

    Portia also says, in Act 5, Scene 1:
    A substitute shines brightly as a king
    Unto the king be by, and then his state
    Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
    Into the main of waters.

    A Google search for your "original version" returns no hits other than this post. I strongly suspect that you are pulling our legs.
  8. Hogwaump

    Hogwaump Senior Member

    USA, WV
    English - USA
    I'm not attempting to pull anyone's leg - just relaying bits I have picked up reading of privateers and their conversion into "pirates."

    Perhaps the context of which I wrote is limited to that part of the world. I did notice that a google search did not retrieve the words as I wrote them, but it did not surprise me. I have only seen it in very old written books, always attributed to "Anon."

    A quote from the online etymology dictionary (

    In Spanish Main the word is short for mainland (1375) and refers to the coast between Panama and Orinoco.

    They also note:

    Used since 1548 for "continuous stretch of land or water."

    It would not surprise me at all to learn that the later usage actually derived from a misunderstanding of the sailors' rhyme, but that is pure speculation.
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Do you have a reference for your "original quote"? I cannot find it anywhere. I would also point out that your assertion that main "has nothing to do with water" has been shown to be incorrect, as you yourself have admitted. Since main can mean "high sea", then bounding main meaning "leaping ocean water" makes a great deal of sense.

    I'm sory, to which part of the world are you referring?

    Can you perhaps name one of those books, along with the year it was written? Obviously, it would have to be a book published before 1880.

    A quote from the online etymology dictionary (

    Except we are not considering the phrase "Spanish Main"; we are considering the phrase "the bounding main." In the phrase "the bounding main", the word "main" means the open ocean.

    You have confused two separate entries, with one being for the use of main as an adjective, and the other for main as a noun. In neither case does "bounty main" appear.

    What later usage? The usage of "main" as a noun rather than as an adjective?
    While it is certainly speculation, I have doubts about its purity; for one thing, I see no reason to believe that there ever was any such "sailor's rhyme". Unless you can point to some identifiable source for your statement that there was, there does not seem to be any reason to suppose that the origin of the phrase is anything other than the lyrics of the 1880 song. I also see absolutely no reason whatsoever for believing that the origin of the usage of "main" as a noun has anything whatsoever to do with any rhyme at all, whether it be a rhyme of sailors, or tailors, or gaolers, or Vlad the Impaler's.
  10. Hogwaump

    Hogwaump Senior Member

    USA, WV
    English - USA
    You are more than welcome to believe whatever you wish.

    I see that you have more than five thousand posts on this site. I am a casual user. I stumbled across this thread entirely by accident. It concerned something relevent to research I did some thirty years back. I thought I had something to offer, and I did so.

    RE references, all I can tell you is that I got started reading in that vein when I undertook to studythe logs and letters of Christopher Columbus, at least the ones written in Spanish. I don't follow archaic Genoese all that well. From there I digressed into a number of related topics and eventually got interested in pirate lore. Many of the manuscripts I read back then had to be ordered via interlibrary loan, and most were written in longhand. Beyond that, I can offer no further clues.
  11. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Thank you for the permission. :D As a general rule, though, I tend only to believe those things that are likely to be true.

    I am sorry, but I do not see how either writings in Spanish or in Genoese have anything to do with the English phrase "the bounding main".

    Can you perhaps identify any manuscript or source in which the phrase appears as "the bounty main"?

    In order for "bounty main" to make sense, "bounty" has to be a noun used attributively. I do not see how that makes much sense.
  12. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    From an issue of Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce:

    As with the names of the principal characters, a fiction writer of even mediocre quality could hardly have imagined a more compelling name for the ship. "Bounty" denotes goodness and quantity; it also denotes the "Bounty Main," a nickname for pirates at sea; and, of course, it denotes the price on the head of a fugitive from justice.

    I've no idea whether this is folk etymology or nautical knowledge.

    I am inclined to believe the original was "bounty main" and "over the bounding main" is the "cleaned up" version just because "bounding main" makes sense without nautical knowledge but seems a little forced as a metaphor.
  13. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Not at all.

    The song "Sailing, Sailing, o'er the Bounding Main" was written in 1880. At that time, one of the most popular of English poets was Lord Tennyson, and one of his most popular works was In Memoriam, completed in 1849. In Verse XI of that work, we read the following:

    Calm and still light on yon great plain That sweeps with all its autumn bowers, And crowded farms and lessening towers, To mingle with the bounding main:
    Tennyson in turn probably found the phrase in part 2 of Canto I of Lord Byron's 1814 poem "Lara":

    The chief of Lara is return'd again
    And why had Lara cross'd the bounding main?

    The originator of the phrase appears to the Byron, and the form in which the phrase originates is "the bounding main". I do not think you will be able to find any earlier use of the phrase. You certainly will not be able to document any earlier use of the phrase "the bounty main". Mr. Pew is simply, and quite completely, wrong: there was never any phrase "the bounty main", let alone one that was "a nickname for pirates at sea". Since at least 1814 the phrase has been "the bounding main", and it means the open ocean.
  14. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I have to admit that I have only ever heard "the bounding main", and always with the meaning "the open ocean", but I don't quite have a fix on the origins of the phrase or the exact meaning of the parts.

    It makes sense to me, if the Spanish Main is a large expanse of land and a water main or gas main is a big pipe, that the bounding main is not just one of the seven seas but the Ocean. "Main flood" and "main of waters" certainly fit that image.

    I have also heard "angry main" and "raging main". I expect "bounding" to be something the main does, not something it is. But where I am a little confused is with the idea of the main leaping. It is the waves or, relatively speaking, the surface water that leaps, not the main itself, and it is the ships and the people on them that are "tempest toss'd", not the Ocean, so I am left wondering if the Ocean "bounds" something in some sense. I don't think "bounding main" refers to the main acting as a boundary: that would make less sense to me than the "o'er to the Bounty Main" story.

    "Bounty main" must be either a play on words or an earlier term whose meaning has been lost or understood by only a select few and then possibly "cleaned up" to make some kind of sense to regular people.

    I am not completely convinced either way, but GWB's quotes are comforting. (I am not a seaman by any means.)

    If Jack were to come home, would it be to Spain, or was Jack not the original name?

    I am curious what the theme of the song/poem must be if it is not what most of us have been led to believe.
  15. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    You are forgetting that the verb "bound" has another meaning: "to set limits or bounds to; confine" or "to form the boundary of; enclose". The bounding main is the ocean that sets the boundaries to, and encircles, the land masses of the world.
  16. LaLa8 New Member

    I have an old song book from my elementary school that uses the word "bounty" main.
  17. oldgal67 New Member

    English - English
    I too had always thought of the bounding (leaping) main (oceans) as meaning heavy seas - in other words the kind of high waves one might expect when far from shore on either the Atlantic or Pacific. However, reading a book about pirates this week, it occurs to me that it may have an entirely different meaning unlike any of those suggested here. 'Bounding' also means 'confining' as in 'boundaries', so why wouldn't 'bounding main' mean the seas that lap on the shores of all the continents and countries - bounding them, in fact, by water? This makes considerable sense to me - does anyone agree this could be a likely meaning?
  18. JamesM

    JamesM Senior Member

    See post #15 above. You have at least one person who agrees with you. :)
  19. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    John Donne
    Meditation 17 (1624)
    Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
    But lose not hope!
    Everyone is right!
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2011
  20. oldgal67 New Member

    English - English
    Sorry, James M at #18....I am a first time visitor and landed here quite by accident while looking for a definition of 'bounding main' to see if there was any hint that I might be on the right track.......I hadn't realized I had not reached the bottom of the page so had missed #15's comment entirely. However, thanks for pointing it out and I'm glad to know I'm not alone in thinking my notion might have some credibility. ;o)
  21. lesle New Member

    "... we'll sail across the bounding blue..."
    -Eleanor Powell, Broadway Melody of 1940
  22. fnordheron New Member

    English - American
    Hi folks, not pretending any expertise or authority on the subject, but I ran across a reference from a translation of a 17th century Irish song, apparently translated by Gerald Griffin (1803-1840), Eileen Aroon : "Fly with his broken chain,
    Far o'er the bounding main"
  23. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    PaulQ, post #19, you missed out this part of the OED definition
  24. fnordheron New Member

    English - American
    Again, no pretense of expertise here, but having occasionally been on sailing ships asea, I had assumed 'bounding' referred to the motion of small ships over waves, which viewed from on board feels very much like bounding from crest to crest. Favorably impressed by the suggestion that it refers to surrounding rather than motion, no opinion on which is correct, just thought that I would add the observation to the conversation.
  25. Bakalite New Member

    Scottish English
    This is obviously an old post to reply to. However, you simply have to look to old poetry, Shakespeare, Scottish et al. Main is essentially the sea. O'er the main is similar to over the mainsail on square riggers. In other words, out to sea.

    Those of you who sail will know the references (who else knows Lee Ho or Hard a Lee etc, even what that means? Most folk seem to think it means left. Please, please don't let them skipper your boat.).

    The reference to bounty is a Napoleonic reference (actually predates Bonaparte by perhaps 150 or so years - again read your poetry). The reference is to the Spanish Main. The Bounty references Spain's expansionist policies during the 15th, 16th, 17th and up to about 1805 or so. In general English parlance O'er the main means over the English Channel to Spain. Bounding is a misnomer. It really is bounty. Again, reference folk songs and literature - it abounds ;)

    In reference to the original source of the song. It's kind of lost in antiquity. I believe it was originally a love song. I'm sure you could spend many fruitless hours tracing original words. What survived is the music. And just so. Many, many revisions later the words have changed to suit the period. John Tams has made a career out of it. Worth a listen.
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2018
  26. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    Oh dear. Did you read the whole thread, including the detailed information on the history of the phrase "bounding main"?

    I do, and I know that "bounding main" has nothing to do with the mainsail.

    Perhaps you had better not apply for a job as a navigator. The furthest you'll get over the English Channel is France.
  27. Bakalite New Member

    Scottish English
    Wow. That was quick. And yes. Ha Ha. I don't disagree with you.

    Yes. You are correct. I strongly suspect you would need more than a sextant to traverse to Tasmania from where I live.

    To be fair. I was simplifying on an international forum. My bad.

    Oddly enough, amongst other things I actually have navigated, at night, via dead reckoning on a variety of craft. My old dad bombed the crap out of European cites. My Mums dad was a spotter in the Blackwatch. So. I make no apology.

    On the other hand. You are correct that the mainsail has nothing to do with navigation. Obviously not. It does however have a great deal to do with rhetorical words within literature. Main Sail obviously has a very specific (and indeed once again obviously practical) engineering meaning. In literature the euphemism provides a foil for poetic license. Far be it for me to suggest either how or why.

    I think you are being a curmudgeon. Nice to get your reply though.


  28. Bakalite New Member

    Scottish English
    Oops. My apologies. Back end of port third watch. Yes I know.

    Main. Mainland. I was a bit pished. Sea, really! Me idiot. And yes, GPS is my friend.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2018

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