Today’s word is a quintessential vacation word that more than half (52%) of American and British (53%) adults think of when asked where they want to take a vacation. Naturally, it’s the beach. Though it’s seemingly something that we all yearn for (even secretly), what, linguistically, makes the beach what it is?
When we think of the beach, we typically think of sun, sand, and crystal clear water lapping at the shore; however, the original meaning was quite more stark.
Initially, the word beach, of unknown origin but possibly being a dialectal survival of the Old English word for stream, bece, was defined as ‘the loose water-worn pebbles (shingle) of the seashore’.
First used in a work called Art Survey, compiled around 1535, it is written that: “The smooth hard beach on the Seashores burns to a purer white.”
In order to encompass more variance in seashores, our word was generalized in the next 70 or so years to include all shores of the sea (essentially, the strand), as can be seen in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600): “You may as well go stand upon the Beach and bid the main flood bate his usual height.”
If none of this seems very beach-like, don’t be alarmed: what we typically think of when we imagine the beach is a product of the tourism industry, industrial revolution, and, largely, Victorians.
Early Victorian doctors understood the health benefits of ozone (O3), but wrongly associated the smell of ozone with the smell of sea air. Believing it to be the same thing, they prescribed seaside visits for their patients. What was initially a medical treatment quickly became a pleasure trip; moreover, thanks to the industrial revolution, more people had money and leisure time to spend. This desire to go to the seaside manifested itself in the tourism industry, which, when it soon became global, presented us with the image of the tropical sandy beach.
Simply put, that image has been very successful. Given, Disney World’s 20.45 million visitors may skew this figure, but Florida, which is essentially a giant beach, welcomed more than 116 million tourists in 2017, including nearly 8 million overseas visitors, which supported 1.4 million local jobs by spending well over EUR 100 billion.
Even more beachy and less Disney, the most popular tourist destination in Europe appears to be the Canary, the Spanish island region, and furthermore, tourism in the EU is mainly concentrated in coastal regions, with the most popular beachy destinations running from southern Spain around the Mediterranean coastline into southern France and then across northern Italy to the Adriatic coastline of Croatia.
People do love beaches! As Frankie Avalon said to Annette Funicello in 1964’s Muscle Beach Party, “Look, the beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own! Isn’t that enough?”