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I'm curious to find out why we talk of freshwater (or fresh water) when we refer to water with a very limited amount of salt dissolved in it.

Looking at various sources, both online and in books, I have learnt that the term sweetwater may also be used.

Do you know the origin of the expression and is sweetwater a valid alternative?

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You seem to ask 'What is fresh about freshwater?' – Kris Apr 17 '12 at 19:51
In a sense, because it could not depend on water being cool. However, zpletan seems to have found an Old English term to justify "fresh" – Paola Apr 17 '12 at 19:55
Sweetwater is not commonly used. It's most appropriate in historical contexts. – Charles Apr 17 '12 at 20:17
The analogue of sweetwater is used in a number of other languages: forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1071437 – Hugo Apr 18 '12 at 7:37
@Paola - You are capable to ask questions which are better than mine! +1 – user19148 May 4 '12 at 12:48
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The NOAD identifies the etymology of fresh:

ORIGIN Old English fersc [not salt, fit for drinking,] superseded in Middle English by forms from Old French freis, fresche; both ultimately of Germanic origin and related to Dutch vers and German frisch.

Sweetwater, I would assume, is at this point (don't know about originally; cf. @BarrieEngland's answer) the antonym of saltwater, and therefore synonymous with freshwater.

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No, sweetwater is water that is suitable for drinking. There are reasons water might not be drinkable, even if it isn't salty. – Peter Shor Mar 18 '14 at 17:45

The OED’s earliest citation for ‘fresh water’ is 1528, in the phrase ‘the best freshe water fyshe’. ‘Sweet water’ appears around the middle of the sixteenth century, in the sense of ‘a sweet-smelling liquid preparation’. It is first used to mean fresh water in 1608.

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Your OED must be much better than mine, as I couldn't find any reference to origins or comparisons between the two expressions – Paola Apr 17 '12 at 19:50
@Paola: OED online: oed.com – Barrie England Apr 17 '12 at 19:58
Expanding on @Barrie's answer, the OED's oldest citation of this sense of "fresh" dates to c893 in Orosious' History: (Eufrates) is mæst eallra ferscra wætera. The full etymology is specifically listed as "obscure", but roughly corresponds to zpletan's answer. – Simon Jester May 4 '12 at 14:13
@SimonJester: Quite right. I looked only under 'fresh water', not 'fresh'. Surprising there's not some kind of cross reference. – Barrie England May 4 '12 at 14:36

My contention has always been that:

Rain water reaches the ground, is partly utilized, and eventually flows into the sea.

Therefore, water freshly obtained from rain, from water-bodies or ground water is fresh and potable, unlike that which has washed out into the sea to become salt water heavy with minerals.

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