Derivation of Spring and Neap Tides
At the end of the SWMHS meeting at Teignmouth the subject of the origins of the terms Spring and Neap tides was raised by Kate Manley-Tucker and I rather rashly volunteered to look into the problem. I enquired of the Tidal Branch in the UK Hydrographic Office and drew the response that Spring tides have nothing to do with the season but that was all. Curiously, however, 'tide' comes from the Anglo Saxon word 'tyd' which means 'seasons' in a general sense. So where to try next? the Hydrographic Office library.
D H Macmillan in his book 'Tides', CR Books 1966, discusses early voyages to northern Europe by explorers from the Mediterranean. The tidal range in the Mediterranean is very small and would not have been of much concern to Mediterranean mariners. Once they moved out of the Mediterranean and advanced northwards they encountered greater and greater tidal ranges. Macmillan then goes on to say: 'From local fishermen they [Mediterranean mariners] would discover that at the times of full and new moon there came the Live-water or Springing water when after the full flood, water level fell low enough to expose the greatest beach area making it worthwhile to take their parties and carts to gather crabs, mussels, and sea foods so essential for their subsistence. The fishermen would also tell them that that when the moon was showing half its disc at the quarters, the tide would move little in level or stream so they called it a time of Dead-water.' Macmillan does not list the source of this theory and nor could I find any supporting evidence.
The derivation of neap tides, however, seemed simpler. The Shorter Oxford dictionary gives the derivation of 'neap' from the Old English (OE) word 'nep', to become lower. Thus the OE 'nepflod' tide gives as a rough translation 'low flood' tide. This argument is supported by Admiral W H Smyth, an eminent Royal Navy hydrographic surveyor (and thus a must trustworthy source!), in his 'Sailor's Word-book' published in 1867.
A prompt from our now Chairman, David Pulvertaft, caused me to send my brief findings to the Society for Nautical Research to be published in the queries section of the 'Mariner's Mirror'. It was a while before my question drew answers but without doubt my patience has since been rewarded.
The first response, from Captain Mike Barritt RN, was printed in the Mariner's Mirror in August 2000:
'The following definitions, found in the 1914 edition of The Admiralty Manual of Navigation, have always seemed to me to be the most convincing:
at full or change of the moon, tides are caused which are about 3/7ths greater than the lunar or anti-lunar tides, and such tides are called Spring tides from the Saxon springan, to bulge.
When the moon is in quadrature
the high water being about 4/7ths the size of the lunar or anti-lunar tides, such tides are called Neap tides from the Saxon neafte, scarcity.
The next response was published in The Mariner's Mirror in November 2000 in which T. M. Conway of Tyne and Wear supplied this etymological reasoning:
"As Lieutenant Commander Wilson surmised, these names come from Anglo-Saxon roots. Nep was an ordinary adjective meaning 'lacking' or possibly 'scanty', while tyd meant 'time' - particularly in a recurring or periodic sense as applied to the daily canonical hours in the church, or annual feast days or even the seasons of the year. The contextual sense was that of regular intervals of time - regardless whether they were short or long.
While the Anglo-Saxon term for neap tide was nepflod, spring tide was fylleflod from the verb fyllan meaning 'to fill', although a verb of the same form and declension could alternatively mean 'to destroy'. Flod meant primarily 'flow, wave or tide' and only in a secondary sense our modern usage of 'flood'. A reference of c.730 illustrates these terms:
On aelcum anum geare weaxep daet flod deas feower and twentigum sida and swa oft wanep, fyllepflod bip nemmed on laeden 'malina' and se nepflod 'ledo'.
(In each year that tide waxes twenty-four times and wanes as often; full-tide, which is called in Latin 'malina' and neap-tide 'ledo'.)
The Latin equivalents given appear to be late provincial or regional terms and bear no relation to the earlier classical or later medieval usage's.
The verb springan in Anglo-Saxon meant 'to spring, rise, swell, burst' and was often applied to wells, springs and streams, but the earliest surviving usage applicable to the tide appears to be that found in Franklin's Tale of c.1390 where the spring-tide is magically prolonged:
Than shal she (the moon) been evene atte fulle
And spring-flood laste bothe night and day.
The passage referred to from the book on tides bears a passing resemblance to what Alexander's sailors saw when they encountered the tides of the Indian Ocean at the opposite extremity of the then known world."
Thus the evidence above, coupled with the letter from Frank Oates in SW Soundings No.47, firmly supports Anglo Saxon derivations and meanings. It has been a fascinating question to research and I hope that it has proved of interest to members other than Kate Manley-Tucker and myself.
From Bob Wilson
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Hi, thanks very much for the explanation of the spring tide I have learned a lot. Thanks again, John
Thank you for explaining the derivation of spring tide. I am teaching translation from german into arabic at university, and I faced the word Springflut(german), that is spring tide, and I wanted to understand the derivation and to explain it to my students.
I live at the mouth of the river Eden,today we are about to experience one of the biggest spring tides of the year,possible village flooding.Thank you for explaining the difference between a Neap tide and a Spring tide.
It is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon, as explained in the text of the letter.
What is the derivation of the word spring in spring tides?
Yeah it really helpes me with my prodjest thanks a million!!!
I really like how your web-site explains all the meanings of words A.K.A spirg tides. It really helped me with a school project. And your web site was the first in 50 sites that explained these words. Thanks a million
how do I get to spring or neap tides anwsers