We went to the beach yesterday, Aina and I, and it was windy. As the swell of the water came to the shallows, waves peaked and curled and crashed, one after another, making the constant timeless noise of whitening water: surf, surf, surf, surf.
And nearby, the wind blew through the trees, and they also soughed, and as it swept the sands they sighed, but those could scarce be heard above the thrash and splash and roar of the water. Even the chatter of the few people on the beach barely crested the white noise of the wave wash.
And this was only on the shore of a great lake. Much larger waves can come in when you are on the ocean’s edge, the last lap of the vast and deep sea, spraying salt and plankton. The ocean waves are large enough that you can ride them on boards, if you’re able. The ones on Lake Ontario occasionally get to a size that allows that, but it’s never quite the same – and there’s no salt. But, like the waves of the lake, the ocean waves make the sound of liquid chaos as they roll at the shore: surf, surf, surf, surf.
Am I meaning to say that the word surf comes from the sound of surf? I do not know that for sure. But it may. It’s thought to be related, one way or another, to suff, a long-derelict which meant the same thing, and perhaps to sough. The shift from suff to surf, if it occurred, happened (with overlap) in the 1600s. And you may think that suff and surf sound almost the same in the English of England, but the habit of dropping “r” after vowels was not common at the time; it swept through the London area a full century later.
So when Englishman Daniel Defoe, in 1719, wrote of “the Surf of the Sea” in Robinson Crusoe, he was saying “surf” the same way as American Herman Melville, in 1851, writing of “a sullen white surf”: with the curl of the “r,” the tongue rearing and rolling in the mouth like a wave making for shore. Thus, the word makes a gesture iconic of what it names: first the breaking “s”; then the sustained rolling “r”; finally the flat forward wash “f.” It may not be exactly how it came about, but it fits.
After an hour or so of watching the waves from the beach, Aina finally went in and played in the surf, letting it splash and thrash her. Few others had the nerve. No one was out on boards. And I preferred to stay dry and watch. We each have our forms of entertainment. But few things are as captivating and meditative as waves rolling in.