7

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?

  • A reminder that it is really astoundingly difficult to encapsulate the full weight of nuance, in even the shortest phrase! – Fattie 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
  • Well if ever there was a 'purely opinion based' question, I think this may be it. – JHCL Oct 7 '15 at 20:12
  • @Thursagen, "across the road" meaning to UK or US? – Pacerier Jul 18 '16 at 8:23
23

I feel that the aspect "the world is smaller now" is really not that relevant: indeed, the phrase is far too old for that to be the case.

Rather, it's a perfect 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." Britain was the biggest-ever world empire: indeed, that was largely based on naval power. So in the 1800s, you can see that because of extreme British naval power - combined with the 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: I would suggest in the USA the phrase 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; the yoof have Snapchat.

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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
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    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
  • Also commonly known as "The Herring Pond". – Dan Sheppard Feb 16 '16 at 20:08
6

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.

  • But they are colonies? (Heh!) – Fattie Jun 17 '11 at 21:25
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    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
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    Here's an 1858 across the pond reference—to the Pacific! – Callithumpian Jun 18 '11 at 4:05
  • To this Englishperson, "the colonies" isn't really a phrase I'd use except very carefully, and certainly not with strangers. The pond isn't really controversial, though. – Dan Sheppard Feb 16 '16 at 20:09
3

The reason phenry couldn't find matches from before 1885 in a Google Books search for "the pond" may have been that in many early references the expression contains a qualifying modifier: "the big pond," "the great pond," "the herring pond," the salt pond," or some combination of these characterizations. At least one fairly early reference to the Atlantic Ocean as "the big pond" comes up in a Google Books search, from Eliza Cook's Journal (March 20, 1852), a London periodical. The earliest Google Books match for "across the great pond" is even earlier—from a U.S. publication called Holden's Dollar Magazine (July 1849).


Identifying 'the herring pond'

The earliest and most common variation on "across the pond" in Google Books search results, however, takes the form "across the herring pond." Here are two such examples. From "Sketches of Society,—No. III," in La Belle Assemblée: or, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine (July 1824):

There—those two, now walking off arm-in-arm, are two of the greatest sharpers on the turf. He in the short green jacket, white, hat, buff waistcoat, and cossack trowsers, is Jack Dauntless, who would, not very long since, have been sent across the herring-pond, if fortune had not stood his friend, and by means of a flaw in the indictment procured his acquittal of a charge of swindling; ...

And from "Chit Chat," in The Metropolitan (August 1833):

Mr. Volage. "Nonsense," said the Doctor, "I mean to say that you're a loose character." —— "D——n," says Jarvey, "bating that I've been across the herring pond once, and had a spell at the hulks twice, who can say a word agin my carracter ; for being had up now and then goes for nicks, every gemmen knows that ere. But, my precious eyes! I does'nt think as how you're no gemmen at all!"

Both of these instances evidently refer to transportation—the punishment of being sent off to a distant penal colony in Australia or elsewhere as punishment for a crime in England—and by the 1800s few convicts were being sent across the Atlantic.

Similar usage appears in instances from 1840 and 1841, suggesting that this term remained a common slang expression at least into the 1840s. A search for earlier instances of "herring pond" for "the sea" (not further differentiated) finds William Perry, The London Guide and Stranger's Safeguard Against Cheats, Swindlers, and Pickpockets That Abound Within the Bills of Mortality; Forming a Picture of London, as Regards Active Life (1818) uses the term in passing with regard to a swindler:

Next in high sounding firm was the Piccadilly bank, Sir Sir John William Thomas Lathrop Murray, Bart. and Co. who is now on his journey across "the herring pond" for no good.

In that book the author identified himself on the title page as "A Gentleman who has made the Police of the Metropolis, an object of enquiry twenty-two years." And Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) has this entry for herring pond:

HERRING POND. The sea; to cross the herring pond at the king's expense, to be transported.

Earliest of all is this mention in The True Anti-Pamela: Or, Memoirs of Mr. James Parry, second edition (1742):

In short I expected nothing less than Transportation ; altho' I had no Way injured any one. Well, thinks I, if I must go over the Herring Pond, there is no avoiding it. I have been at Sea, and am not unacquainted with some Part of America, so that if I am obliged to quit my native Shore, I'll not be confined to what Province my Adversaries please; but will reach Carolina, where I am acquainted.

At this early date, the American penal colony at Georgia was indeed a common destination of transported criminals, and appears to be the destination Mr. Parry contemplates for himself, making "the Herring Pond" of this mention (once again) the Atlantic Ocean.

In other early use, "the herring-pond" may to refer to smaller bodies of seawater such as the English Channel or the Irish Sea. From a review of "The Frantic Conduct of John Bull for a Century Past," in The Monthly Review (May 1803):

Though these doggerel rhimes are often hobbling, vulgar, and ungrammatical, they bear the features of true satire, and prove the author to be gifted with some penetration. If his mode of treating his subject is not quite new, his work certainly is not tedious. Poor John Bull is treated with very little ceremony; and his past conduct, in needlessly pushing his head into quarrels, squandering his money, and entailing debts on his children, is adduced to prove him mad, or 'governed by Old Nick.' On the other hand, his antagonist across the herring-pond does not escape castigation, but is represented as having weakly sported with the name of Liberty:

Thy cause, indeed, was like to fail,/ Thou'dst neither ballast, rope, nor sail;/ Drov'st without compass, anchor, helm,/ Thy miscreants delug'd all the realm./ At murder, guillotine, and dagger,/ Thy injur'd friends began to stagger;/ No longer could maintain thy cause,/ When thou had'st thus blasphem'd its laws;/ ...

And from Fatherless Fanny; or, A Young Lady's First Entrance into Life, Being the Memoirs of a Little Mendicant, and Her Benefactors (1811), in which little Fanny, after being abducted, is conveyed by ship from the west coast of England to Ireland:

"Miss looks terrible well now," exclaimed Franklyn, to one of the other men, "it is only my whimpering wife made her bad before; I wish I had sent her back sooner, we should have been across the herring-pond by this time."

Eventually "across the herring pond," like other formulations of "across the pond" most often meant "across the Atlantic Ocean"—as it appears to have done in its 1742 instance in The True Anti-Pamela.


Early newspaper instances in which 'the pond' = 'the Atlantic Ocean'

A search of the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database for instances where across the pond means "across the ocean" go back to 1837. In the earliest matches, the pond in question is the Atlantic Ocean, but later instances (beginning in 1857) use it in connection with the Pacific Ocean. To show the range of the expression as used in the 1830s 1840s, and 1850s by U.S. newspapers to refer to the Atlantic Ocean, I reproduce examples through the year 1854.

From a letter in the [New York] Morning Herald (July 25, 1837):

A packet had just put her passengers on board of the steamer, and it afforded us infinite gratification to see the wondering faces of the women, and the astonishment of the men, to see so beautiful a spot across the big pond, as they call the wide Atlantic.

From "Varieties," in the New York Herald (June 2, 1845):

The editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, who claims to be the inventor of the project for extending Morse's telegraph across the Atlantic, intends at no very distant day, to organize a company to purchase the wire and take other steps to stretch it across the "big pond."

From the St. Landry [Louisiana] Whig (August 28, 1845):

In the prairies here, we can beat the Jews or Gentiles in raising horses, Cattle, Sheep, Hogs, Fowls, Corm, Cotton, Sugar, and even Grapes to make Wine from, or any of those gentlemen across the "big pond" who want to make us subservient to their wishes. Keep up the Tariff, sir, and in a few years we will produce every thing the most fastidious taste could desire, and become a perfect world within ourselves!

From a letter to the editor dated May 6, 1846, published in the [Washington, D.C. Daily Union (May 16, 1846):

Before I conclude, allow me to state the case of two shoemakers not far from this. They live in the same street opposite each other; one is a good cutter, has money, buys the best leather at the first hand, employs the best workmen, pays them regularly and promptly, and gets his work done low; consequently he produces a superior article at a moderate price, and as a matter of course takes the bulk of the trade. The other man has no capital, gets his materials on credit at high prices, pays his workmen uncertainly, does not produce as good an article for the same money, and cannot get along. Now, why should not this man have a bill passed to protect him? The manufacturers get bills passed to protect them against English manufacturers; and the only difference is that they are across a big pond, and the shoemakers across the street; for we are all brothers.

From "New York Correspondence of the Crescent," in the [New Orleans, Louisiana] Daily Crescent (June 10, 1848):

E. K. Collins is going ahead with his large ocean steamers, for which he has selected the names: "Palo Alto," "Buena Vista," "Cerro Gordo," and Contreras." We have already five or six ocean steamers plying from this city [New York City] across the "big pond."

From the Evansville [Indiana] Daily Journal (June 24, 1848):

It is stated that the new British steamship Niagara made the first half of her passage across the Atlantic, within sixty or seventy mi[l]es, in four days. Tremendous westerly winds impeded her progress for the next four days, or she would have made the quickest passage across the great pond ever heard of.

From "Another Holy Alliance," in the [Sumterville, South Carolina] Sumter Banner (June 20, 1849):

England can protest, but can afford to do no more.---Russia and Austria, with a million of soldiers, will give the law to Europe. Every arrival from across the "big herring pond" increases the interest of the news it conveys.

From a letter to the editor dated November 18, 1850, of the [Washington, D.C.] Daily Union (November 23, 1850):

But Mr. Garrison is probably not satisfied with his [anti-slavery] force here: he sends across the "Big Pond," and brings over to his aid the celebrated George Thompson, a Britisher, who, on his former visit to his bosom friend, came very near o getting an extra red coat, and escaped to the British provinces with an extra cup of tea.

From "Shortest Passage Ever Made Across the Atlantic," in the Portsmouth [Ohio] Inquirer (May 5, 1851):

The American Republican Mail Steamship "Pacific" arrived in port on Saturday at 10 A. M., after a passage of 9 days and 20 hours from Liverpool, the shortest on record. The Pacific has made the two shortest passages ever made across the Big Pond.

From "The Release of Kossuth," in the New York Herald (October 4, 1851):

She [the steamship Mississippi] now lies snugly at anchor in the Golden Horn, much admired and visited by all classes of people—Moslem, Christian, and Jew—and busily engaged preparing for her long journey across the "great pond."

From "The New Primer," in the [Washington, D.C.] National Intelligencer (October 18, 1851):

It will be seen by the following paragraph from the "European Times" that this invention [of the Maynard primer as a replacement for the percussion cap in firearms] is attracting some notice across the pond: [quotation from the European newspaper omitted].

From "American Example Abroad," in the [Richmond, Virginia] Daily Dispatch (April 12, 1852):

There was a grand debate in the British House of Commons on the 26th March, relative to the extension of the right of suffrage.—From this debate which is too long for publication in this paper, it is evident that, in spite of themselves, republican ideas are advancing very rapidly with our cousins across the herring pond.

From "The Address of the Ladies of England," in the [Ebensburg, Pennsylvania] Mountain Sentinel (December 30, 1852):

These ["quasi benevolent"] ladies [of England] need not look across the "big pond" to rescue shattered constitutions and broken-hearts from bondage

From a letter by "Hopeful" from Washington, D.C., dated May 26, 1853, in the Ohio Union (June 8, 1853):

"To be or not to be" has been, the question; but the President has pretty effectually settled it, by giving to "his flock" the results of his labors in relation to "Foreign Appointments." The city has been full of applicants, for places abroad, but, all at once, "a change comes over the spirit of their dreams" and they "mizzled." One prominent gentleman who had been here for ten weeks pressing claims for a place at the "Lobos Islands," or some other "fertile spot" across the pond, left in such a hurry as to entirely overlook his night shirt, which was under his pillow.

From "When Newspapers Please," in the Rutland [Vermont] County Herald (June 18, 1853):

The London Leader—one of the most piquant journals that reach us from across the great "herring pond"—thus felicitously explains the secret of newspaper popularity: [quotstion omitted.

From "A Traveller," in the [Raleigh, North Carolina] Weekly North Carolina Standard (September 3, 1853):

I have visited every great curiosity, nearly every state capital, and every State in the Union, except California and Texas. Across the "herring pond" I travelled through almost every kingdom, and saw nearly every crowned head in Europe; wandered over the highlands of Scotland, stoned the cormorants in Fingal's Cave, shot sea gulls in Shetland, eat plovers and other wild birds in Iceland, cooked my dinner in the geysers, cooled my punch with the snows of Mt. Hekla, and toasted my shins at the burning crater on its summit.

From "Changing the Fashions," in the [Richmond, Virginia] Daily Dispatch {November 24, 1854):

In this country, where the ladies are worshipped as something superior, men never think of asking them to perform menial offices, or to do anything inconsistent with their delicate, angelic natures. Not so with some of our neighbors who hail from across the big salt pond, if we are to judge from what is frequently seen in our city.


Early instances where 'the pond' = 'the Pacific'

From "Where do the days Die?" in the Burlington [Vermont] Free Press (April 17, 1857):

The shipmaster who does not make this rectification, always finds his reckoning a day in advance of or a day behind that of the port he sails to : for when it is Monday afternoon at San Francisco it is Tuesday afternoon across the pond at Canton [China].

The [Honolulu, Hawaii] Polynesian (April 24, 1858) quotes an editorial comment from San Francisco Prices Current to the effect that the U.S. government should ensure that U.S. commerce with the Hawaiian Kingdom of the Sandwich Islands not be "interrupted" by competition from European nations (in particular France, which was known to be negotiating a trade deal with Hawaii), and then the Polynesian comments as follows:

How the French treaty does trouble our neighbor across the pond! Do they not know that any privilege which the French, or any of "the most favored nation" may have obtained, will by their own treaty be granted to them? And do they for a moment suppose that the U.S. Commissioner is not better posted on these subjects than any "on dits" of San Francisco?

From "H. R. H. Prince Kamehameha," in the [Honolulu, Hawaii] Polynesian (August 18, 1860):

We know that it will afford our readers as much pleasure to learn, as it gives us to inform them, that H. R. H. Prince Kamehameha, has now so far recovered from his late severe sickness as to be able to take some gentle exercise on horseback during the morning hours. We learn further that, upon the advice of the physicians, the Prince has concluded to try a trip to Victoria, V[ancouver] I[sland], perhaps California, and the effects of a sea voyage and change of climate, in order fully to re-establish his health.

That the prayers and best wishes of every inhabitant of this land go with him. we need not assure him, and that the kindliest reception awaits him across the pond, we are equally certain. The Prince takes passage on board the clipper schooner Emma Rooke for Victoria, V. I., and will leave about the 28th inst.

From "Interesting from Japan," in the Newbern [North Carolina] Weekly Progress (October 2, 1860):

We make the following extracts, says the Washington States, of a letter dated Yokohama, Japan, July 18th, and which we find in the [San Francisco] Alta Californian:

The Japanese steam Candinmarrah, which left this port last February, ... conveying the intelligence of the departure of the Japanese Ambassadors to America, arrived here from Honolulu, after a passage of eighteen days. From the Americans who came in her, we learned that the Japanese conducted themselves admirably on board, taking the position of the vessel daily by the sun, and brought her, in seamanlike manner, into this bay without accident.

The appearance of the Japanese steamer, from America, with news from the Ambassadors, created a great excitement both amongst the Americans and Japanese. The foreigners were anxious to hear how the Japanese had been received in America, and the Japanese were fearful lest the Ambassadors would not survive the great trip across the pond. However, all doubts were dispelled when the great mail was distributed.


Conclusions

The earliest instance that my Chronicling America search yielded for the unadorned expression "across the pond" for "across the Atlantic Ocean" is from a Washington, D.C. newspaper article published in October 1851.

But use of "the herring pond" for "the Atlantic Ocean" or generically for "the sea" or for one or another smaller specific seas goes back much farther. The earliest match I've been able to find for "the herring pond" as a slang expression for "Atlantic Ocean" is from the second edition of The True Anti-Pamela, published in 1742 (the first edition appeared a year earlier, but I haven't found a searchable copy of it online).

1

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...

  • 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 :-) – Fattie Jun 18 '11 at 15:53
  • Well, to be fair, we expend most of our effort making fun of each other in this country. We are so big and multicultural, there really isn't much need to look elsewhere. When we do want to make fun of forigners, there is always the Canadians. You Brits just can't compete for humor value with folks who are into Curling, Zambonis, and Moose. – T.E.D. Jun 18 '11 at 17:59
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    My impression has always been that, while the expression may have existed earlier, it gained currency during WWII when military flights frequently crossed the Atlantic between the US and the British Isles. As military types are wont to do, the flight crews reduced a task which was in equal parts amazing, dangerous, stressful, and tedious to phrases such as "puddle jumping" and "crossing the pond". – Hot Licks Oct 7 '15 at 20:19
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Put quite simply, "the Pond" is an expression of the relationship that exists, still to this day, between the United States of America and Great Britain. It's a linguistic way of reducing the 3000 miles that physically exist between our two countries and recognising how much we actually have in common. By far and away the most common language spoken in the United States is English. Ask yourself why that is and look it up in the history books!

  • A four-year necrobump, lol. On-topic: Agreed with you. – Nihilist_Frost Oct 7 '15 at 20:19
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As an aviator, we refer to the Pacific as the "pond" and the Atlantic as the "puddle". A girlfriend of mine, most recently a captain on American Eagle, now retired, used to ferry planes across the Pacific, aka the pond, to NZ or Aus from California and she also ferried quite a few across the puddle from California to the UK. You can see how the names are so apt. Every time I see "pond" applied to the Atlantic, I cringe.

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    Welcome to EL&U. Thank you for your contribution; however, please note that this is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and your submission does not answer the question of why the phrase across the pond is used for the Atlantic. Please take the site tour and review the help center for a better understanding of how our site operates. – choster Oct 26 '16 at 21:34

protected by user140086 Oct 26 '16 at 17:45

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