I am trying to understand the history and etymology of the word breaker as it relates to ocean waves. I found a citation to the 1680s which ties it to "break" which dates to the Old English and the 13th century and seems simply descriptive, that the water surface breaks -- nothing specific to waves.

I don't have an OED handy so I can't see if there is anything else. Any help would be appreciated.

  • Any dictionary will give the answer to this, including on-line ones if you don't have an OED handy. – Roaring Fish Oct 5 '14 at 5:43
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    The OED would give the first (found) citation in print in particular use. So far, the etymology of break doesn't clear up when/how the word began to be applied to the waves. – rosends Oct 5 '14 at 12:16
  • Breaks is also a noun referring to landforms, basically badlands. Example: Cedar Breaks National Monument. – tchrist Oct 5 '14 at 18:55
  • @Dan... then try searching for the etymology of 'breaker' instead of 'break'. Here is one obvious place, for example: etymonline.com/index.php?term=breaker. This is something that can be easily resolved with a little bit of research in easily accesed references, which is why I voted to close this question. – Roaring Fish Oct 6 '14 at 5:37
  • @RoaringFish that link only takes one to the 1680's reference which I listed in my question, no further. As the answers indicate, the word is more complex than that. – rosends Oct 6 '14 at 10:52

It seems as if the word breaker, comes not so much from the idea of the wave itself breaking, but from the breaking of the contiguous surface of the water as it breaks into foam. It is the same idea of break that you find in the nautical phrase broken water(s). In nautical registers broken water is taken to be a sign that the water is dangerously shallow. At least this is all what is heavily implied in the OED definition, which is as follows:

  1. A heavy ocean-wave which breaks violently into foam against a rocky coast or in passing over reefs or shallows. Breakers ahead! ‘the common pass-word to warn the officer of broken water in the direction of the course’.

The earliest quote given is from Increase Mather · An essay for the recording of illustrious providences · 1684

If the Providence of God had not by the breakers given them timely warning they had been dashed to pieces.

The noun breaker in general has a date of 1175. (This page in the OED has not been fully updated, and was first published in 1888.)

Here is a link to Nautical Magazine: A Magazine for Those Interested in Ships and the Sea. 1836. It's from an article by Mr Henry Davey: ‘Remarks on the Cargados Gayos Group’. It gives a couple of instances of broken water.

[Quotes from the OED entry in this post were taken from: "breaker, n.1." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 5 October 2014.]

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    Breaks is also used for areas of broken land, so badlands. See Cedar Breaks National Monument and many others. – tchrist Oct 5 '14 at 18:57
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    Huh, whaddyaknow. I’ve only ever heard of broken water in contexts that required an imminent trip to a maternity ward … – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 5 '14 at 19:05
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yeah, exactly. You should have seen what I had to wade through on Google to find a reference! Even "broken waters nautical" brought up horror stories of bairns born on boats! – Araucaria Oct 5 '14 at 19:08
  • So is the wave the breaker or is the shallows? – rosends Oct 5 '14 at 19:55
  • @Dan I think according to that definition, it must be the waves, mustn't it? It says "a heavy ocean wave which ..." so I'm guessing it must be the wave itself? – Araucaria Oct 5 '14 at 20:15

What you've put is as far as I can get at a glance.

Given that waves 'break', and an 'er' suffix makes a verb into a noun, I'd bet that's pretty much all there is to it.

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  • Actually, I don't think this answer is so bad. Given knowledge of what it means for a wave to break (not just what break means in general), and thus that some waves break and some do not, breaker is one possible way of forming a noun that means a wave that does break. This is in fact the right answer, IMO, though it could use a bit of background on what it means for a wave to break, and it does not provide a complete etymology or cite references. – Drew Oct 5 '14 at 17:25

Oxford's COD says: breaker, no. 3: a heavy wave that breaks. Longman DCE: a large wave with a white top that rolls onto the shore (where it collapses).

Up to now I thought a breaker is a high and dangerous wave that can break or damage a ship or the quai. I think I should consult a marine dictionary.


Breaker: A wave that has become so steep that the crest of the wave topples forward, moving faster than the main body of the wave.

  • In the definition you cite, in what sense does the wave "break"? In that it breaks the surface of the water? That it turns sharply? That it crashes down? That the crest breaks off? – rosends Oct 5 '14 at 12:17
  • I think the meaning is the crest breaks off. – rogermue Oct 5 '14 at 12:47

This seems to be making heavy weather of fairly straightforward issue, but here we go.

When a wave is formed, it is stable. It has a particular wavelength and a particular wave height in a combination that gives it stability. If the wavelength reduces, or the height increases, the wave gets taller and thinner until it can no longer stand up by itself and it - literally - breaks. The top falls off.

Why would the wavelength decrease? Because shallow water slows the front edge and the rear catches up. Or because tide, ocean current, or estuary outflow do the same thing.

Why would height increase? Because out-of-phase wavetrains run into each other and one wave 'climbs' on top of another.

There is nothing odd about calling it a breaker as the wave does in fact break, and most resources give around 1680 as the first recorded use.

The truth of the wave breaking comes from hydrodynamics. Anybody who has swum in the sea, or been on a boat, knows that the only motion in a stable wave is vertical. A swimmer just rises and falls - he/she does not move with the wave. Now look at surfers riding their breaking waves. For them, the water has movement and they do move with the wave. That movement is the top of the wave falling/breaking off.

The foam blown off a wave by the wind is a different thing altogether.

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