In Kipling's "The Land" he writes:

Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main

And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.

Here "main" seems to mean sea, i.e. the North Sea.

This seems to me to allude to the Spanish Main, but from what I can find that phrase actually refers to the mainland, not the sea.

The OED (1st ed) has "4. Said of a considerable, uninterrupted strech of land or water" (link) but the examples given mostly seem to be land.

Webster's 1913 has "main, n. 3 ... the high sea; the ocean" (link), but again the examples seem mostly to be of land, including "the main of Spain" to mean mainland.

etymonline doesn't have this usage of "main"

What is the etymology of this usage? Is it a corruption from "Spanish Main" coming to mean sea instead of "mainland"?

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    OED says it's short for main sea noun.; the open sea. Now chiefly poetical. In that context, adjectival main is defined as of a material object, an animal, etc.: of great size or bulk. (Sometimes connoting strength, resisting power, or the like.) So yes - it's effectively the same usage as mainland. – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '15 at 15:05
  • According to the Wikipedia entry on Spanish Main, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Main) it refers to the historical Spanish 'mainland' of the north and south Americas. – WS2 Jan 27 '15 at 15:19
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OED3 has sense 5:

5. a. Short for main sea n.; the open sea. Now chiefly poet.

1579 T. North tr. Plutarch Liues 472 The winde stoode full against them comming from the mayne [Fr. le uent se tourna du costé de la pleine mer].

The meaning of main and main sea is made clear in the French translation pleine mer, but it's not clear where that translation is actually from. Although main meaning "sea" is still in use, albeit poetical, main sea is marked as obsolete, with the last citation from 1876:

1876 A. C. Swinburne Erechtheus 1699 Who shall meet The wind's whole soul and might of the main sea Full in the face of battle.

  • But how did "mayne" come to mean sea? Is it from "Spanish Main"? – Rich Jan 27 '15 at 15:42
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    No, I believe main there has its normal meaning (or at least a sense closely related to it) of "principal, major, large". – Andrew Leach Jan 27 '15 at 15:45
  • Please excuse my lateness… Google brought me here because the difference between English High and US American Main Streets brought up Spanish Main. My French wasn’t good enough but Andrew’s aside contrasted archaic English Plutarch’s the mayne with French Plutarch’s translation pleine mer as, Google says, high waters. Are they too far apart to matter or is high waters really English high seas, rather than anything like mighty waves? I thought Main Street just the most important route in town, unlike the contrast of British local by-ways and national high-ways. More… – Robbie Goodwin Sep 10 '17 at 18:43
  • More… Now, doesn’t French high waters reconcile them; more strongly since the birth of the Spanish Main and US Main Streets weren't too far apart? Then, Swinburne and Erechtheus’ whole soul and might of the main sea in particular stirs something about strength of arm and skill of hand; French hand, that is. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 10 '17 at 18:44

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