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Why do we use the phrase Across the pond to refer to the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean? Considering the size of the Atlantic Ocean is vast, is it suggesting the ocean is only a small hindrance? Considering that in the modern world it has become easier to communicate and travel?

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A reminder that it is really astoundingly difficult to encapsulate the full weight of nuance, in even the shortest phrase! –  Joe Blow Jun 17 '11 at 21:34
In Australia, there is also the expression "across the road", but whatever is being referred to is not necessarily "across the road"! –  Thursagen Jun 18 '11 at 7:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I feel that the aspect "the world is smaller now" is really not that relevant, and indeed the phrase is too old for that to be the case. Rather, it's an example of typical understated, dry English humour.

I'm afraid I don't know about earliest usage although PHenry mentioned it could have been used as early as the 1800s. In that era, the sun never set on the British empire and Britain was the biggest-ever world empire based pretty much solely on naval power. So in the 1800s, you can see that because of extreme British naval power—combined with their typical British gift for understatement—it would be natural to refer to the Atlantic as merely a silly pond.

Note: as John below points out, this phrase is certainly used in both the USA and in the UK. (It's used on both sides of the pond.) It originated in the UK and I would say in the USA it is used mainly on the East Coast—New York City and so on. The phrase is dropping out of use in the UK, so it sounds a hair archaic. Indeed, generally the idea of being a "witty understated Englishman" is something that belongs more to older people there.

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I like the information in this answer, but it implies that the phrase is only used by the British to describe America, when in fact it is used commonly by Americans to describe Europe, including Great Britain. (I will not debate whether including should have been and.) –  John Y Jun 17 '11 at 22:03
In reference to "the English-US rivalry (or whatever the best word is there)" - I believe we call it the special relationship. Which leads to all sorts of other things we call "special"... –  MT_Head Jun 17 '11 at 22:05
+1 for covering just about every nuance of Britishness implied by this usage! We also value pithy succinctness, of course. But in the circumstances you'd be hard put to reflect that in the form of your answer... –  FumbleFingers Jun 18 '11 at 2:15
I believe my answer goes into why it is dropping out of use in the UK. Of course it is all speculative... –  T.E.D. Jun 18 '11 at 14:26

It's a humorous understatement, like calling the United States "the colonies."

The expression seems to have come into being in the late 19th century. On Google Books I find a use of it from 1885, but nothing before that.

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But they are colonies? (Heh!) –  Joe Blow Jun 17 '11 at 21:25
We were colonies. "The colonies" actually refers in general to any former British possession outside of the home islands, so "the colonies" can also refer to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Falklands, India, and basically the English-speaking world besides the U.K. itself. The Unites States are referred to most specifically as "the American colonies", but usually the general term is sufficient to refer to anything English but not British. –  KeithS Jun 17 '11 at 21:38
Here's an 1858 across the pond reference—to the Pacific! –  Callithumpian Jun 18 '11 at 4:05

I first saw it myself from Brits when speaking of America. I believe it was probably originally a jokey reference to how easy it was for them to cross large bodies of water, back in the day when their Navy ruled the world's oceans. Now that the US Navy is in that position, I've seen a few of us USAsians using back at the Brits. :-)

I've also heard it said (in reference to the Chunnel) that a lot of Brits would rather they were closer to America and further from Europe. A verbal attempt to minimize the rhetorical distance between the two nations would help serve that purpose. I suspect that attitude may have changed a bit in the last decade or so though...

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You could probably fill a book with reasons why the expression is becoming 'dated' (@Joe Blow's answer would contribute a good-sized chapter! :-). But I think your second chapter implies one of the more significant reasons, which is simply that in military/political/cultural terms we Brits aren't really in a position to make such jokes at US expense any more. –  FumbleFingers Jun 18 '11 at 15:45
@TED, you have that wrong. It's other Europeans that wish England was closer to the Americas and further from France :-) –  Joe Blow Jun 18 '11 at 15:53
@TED, @Fumble as long as we're on the topic - you mention, due to yank utter superiority in military/economics these days, that tenor can change. Something interesting I've noticed (you yanks reading may not even be aware of this...). Countries such as Australia, England .. tend to have on hand a couple of jokes, teases, knocks, etc, at yank expense. It's a completely normal cultural phenomenon in Australia (for example) to poke fun at, have a go at, the yanks. However in fact the yanks just ... don't even bloody bother. Australia, England, etc, don't even cross the yank mind.... –  Joe Blow Jun 18 '11 at 16:00
(cont)... This is actually pretty embarrassing if you're on the non-yank side :-) For example, for any leading Brit comedian (and there are so many, Brits are brilliant at that sort of thing), it would be natural to have one or two jokes on hand at yank expense. It's a topic that comes up. In contrast a famous USA comedian wouldn't even point to England on the map for any reason. (France is about the only place that gets special sarcastic attention from the USA, and that's only for very specific topical reasons.) It's kind of a chip-on-shoulder effect, I guess. –  Joe Blow Jun 18 '11 at 16:03
(cont...) {My family hails ultimately from Scotland - presently the World's Leading Chip-On-Shoulder Nation(i), so I can say that!} (i) [in contrast to completely inventing the modern world as we know it 200 years ago - things change!] –  Joe Blow Jun 18 '11 at 16:05

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