The End of “Oceanography”?

What do we mean when we use the word “oceanography”? What are we studying when we study the history of oceanography? My Concise Oxford English Dictionary (a tenth edition published in 2002) defines “oceanography” thusly:

Oceanography – n. the branch of science concerned with the physical and biological properties and phenomena of the sea.

However, the meanings of words change over time; other words are abandoned entirely. When the pioneer marine scientist, Alexander Agassiz, published the first volume of his report on the cruises of the steamer “Blake” in 1888, the title he gave it was “A contribution to American Thalassography.” Even the authors of the “Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger”, published in 1895, inform their readers that the expedition “opened out a new era in the study of Oceanology.”

Historians of marine science, particularly of nineteenth-century marine science, encounter many defunct terms for the study of the oceans. As historians, what can we learn from these changes in usage and meaning?

Much more could be said about this than can usefully be discussed in a single blog entry about the changing meanings of marine science terms; however, a single example may serve as a helpful illustration for how an attentiveness to these changes is important.

Below is a graphic representation of the frequency of occurrence of the terms “oceanology”, “thalassography”, “oceanography”, “marine science”, “hydrography”, and “hydrology” in Google’s digitized corpus of English language books and articles for the period from 1870 to 2000, generated using Google’s ngram engine.

First of all, it’s worth noting that Google’s database is probably skewed towards books and other popular texts. In other words, scientific articles, arguably the most important indicators of the vitality of a particular discipline, are missing from this data set. Nevertheless, we can observe an obvious rise and fall of one term of particular interest: “oceanography.” So how might we interpret this result?

I discussed this ngram result with a few oceanographer friends and we concluded that one possible answer was that the curve could be an indication of trends in funding. That is to say that until about 1980 “oceanography” was the term scientists included in research proposals which were granted funding. It is unlikely that research proposals are included in Google’s dataset, however, proposals likely set the lexicon for popular articles summarizing successfully funded research projects.

By the late 1990s, as interdisciplinary science became more in vogue, proposals employing terms suggestive of more interdisciplinary approaches may have been more likely to receive funding. Perhaps the curve in this graph is symptomatic of the large-scale shift from Office of Naval Research funding to National Science Foundation funding which occurred at about this time—whereas the ONR was more interested in pure oceanographic results, especially those with potential military applications, NSF would have favored more interdisciplinary science. [See my discussion of this transition with Dr. Paul Johnson, UW]. For example, proposals for work on marine systems might have used words like “biogeochemistry” or “microbial ecology” or “hydrography” rather than the more general term of “oceanography.”

Alternatively, these changes could be event driven: the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977 propelled a veritable paradigm shift in the ocean sciences. Could this not also have affected the frequency of usage of certain scientific terms? Certainly “hydrology” – which my dictionary defines as “the science concerned with the properties and distribution of water on Earth’s surface” – shows no signs of falling out of usage. So the descent of the term “oceanography” may not signal the “end” at all. We know more about the oceans now than at any other time in human history. The fragmentation of “oceanography” into “marine biology”, “marine microbiology”, “marine geophysics”, and so on, may actually mean that the science of the oceans has grown beyond the confines of any single discipline.

These are, of course, speculations drawn from an incomplete and skewed data set. Nevertheless, I believe this simple example provides strong evidence in support of a methodological approach to the history of oceanography. We must pay attention to changes in terms, for the words themselves – their usage, meaning, and frequency – may teach us much about the history of the marine sciences.


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