Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

So goes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (well, not really), referring to the irony of how we cannot drink water from the ocean. And such is the situation in which Maldivians find themselves; surrounded by the substance which keeps them alive, but unable to consume it.

And because Ramadan is leaving everyone extra thirsty, I decided to write this post about water.

Let’s begin.


The English word water comes from the Old English wæter, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *watar. From this word, we get several Germanic cognates:

  • Danish: vand
  • Dutch: water
  • German: wasser
  • Frisian: wetter
  • Icelandic: vatn
  • Norwegian: vann
  • Swedish: vatten

The Proto-Germanic word comes from the Proto-Indo-European *wod-or, the root of which is *wed.

Now things get interesting:


*Wed is the source of the Greek word ύδωρ (ýdor – or húdōr in Ancient Greek). This word came into English in the form of the prefix hydro-, giving us words like hydrogen and hydraulic, which literally mean “water producing” and “water pipe” respectively.

So it turns out water and hydro- are etymological twins, which you wouldn’t immediately guess just by looking at the words.

But wait, that’s not all.


The Russian word for “water” which came from *wed is вода (voda). And it’s the same for other Slavic languages:

  • Czech, Croatian, Slovenian, Slovak: voda
  • Polish: woda
  • Ukrainian: Вода (voda)

The addition of a diminutive suffix to the Russian word gives us водка (vodka), which literally means “little water”.



It turns out that the root *wed also had the nasalised form *unda. This form of the word managed to make it into Latin, with the original meaning of “water” changed into “wave”. See the other Romance language cognates:

  • French: onde
  • Italian, Portuguese, Spanish: onda
  • Romanian: undă

This word was also borrowed into English in various forms. A surprising one is the word surround where the -ound comes from the Latin unda. The word literally means “overflow” and has nothing to do with the word round as you would first think. With this meaning in mind, it looks like Maldives is “surrounded” by water in more ways than one. Other English words based on the Latin word include inundateredundant, and undulate, which mean “overflow”, “be over-full”, and “move in waves” respectively.


*Wed came into Sanskrit in the form उद्र (udra), which still means “water”. The Dhivehi descendant of this word is އުދަ (udha) which means “large/tidal wave”. It is possible that this is also related to އުދަރެސް (udhares), which means “horizon” (“where the ocean meets the sky”).


That was one of the really surprising things I found – that there is a Dhivehi cognate for the word water.

Yet there is still more.


Another meaning of उद्र (udra) is “aquatic animal”. This has an English cognate other than water: the word otter. To be clear, otter doesn’t come from Sanskrit – the meaning of “aquatic animal” just happened to make it into both languages. But again, you wouldn’t even think that that the two are related!


More Water Words

As it turns out, the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European were a crazy bunch who had many words for water. *Wed, which we just looked at referred to water as an inanimate substance. The next word we’ll look at referred to water as a living force.


This word made it into the Balto-Slavic languages Latvian and Lithuanian in the forms upe and  ùpė, respectively, with the meaning of “river”. It didn’t make it into any Germanic languages, but it was likely borrowed into English from a Celtic language, in the form avon, which also means “river”. This word survives in place names like Stratford-upon-Avon (the place where Shakespeare was born).

The word *Hep also made its way into various Indo-Iranian languages:

  • Sanskrit: अप् (ap)
  • Hindi: आब (āb)
  • Farsi: آب (âb)
  • Pashto: اوبه (obe)

This form was also borrowed into English through Arabic, Latin and French. The Farsi گلاب (golâb) meaning “rosewater” became the English julep, which is a drink (usually alcoholic) flavoured with aromatic herbs.

Strangely though, the Indo-Iranian forms of *Hep didn’t make it into Dhivehi, except as a borrowing in words like ގުލާބް (gulaab).

Jamun is the Hindi word for Java plum


Another Proto-Indo-European word for water. This one made it into Latin in the form aqua which then went on into other Romance languages:

  • Italian: aqua
  • French: eau
  • Spanish/Portuguese: agua
  • Romanian: apă

*Hekweh came into Proto-Germanic in two forms:

  • *ahwō, meaning “river”, which gives us the dialectical English words ea and yeo which both mean “river” or “stream”.
  • *awjō, meaning “floodplain” or “island”. This word gives us the English ey (meaning “island”) and it is where the i in island comes from (the s is there due to French influence). Ey as a suffix is also found in place names like Jersey and Guernsey, which are both Islands in the English Channel.

*Hekweh, like *Hep, doesn’t have a Dhivehi descendant. In fact, it didn’t even make it into Sanskrit.

One Last Word

The only water word we haven’t looked at yet is the actual word for “water” used in Dhivehi: ފެން (fen). This comes from the Sanskrit पानीय (pānīya), which is based on the word पान (pāna) which means “(the act of) drinking”. Cognates exist in other Indic languages:

  • Bengali: পানি (pani)
  • Gujarati: પાણી (pāṇī)
  • Hindi: पानी (pānī)
  • Marathi: पाणी (pāṇī)

These words are also probably related to the word ފަނި (fani) which means “juice” or “syrup”.

पान (pāna) comes from the root पा (pā), which itself comes the PIE root *pō(i) which means “to drink”. Apart from being the source of “water” words in Indic languages, *pō(i) is also the source of “drink” words:

  • Dhivehi: ބުއިން (buin) / ބޯން (boan)
  • Sinhalese: බොන්න (bonna)
  • Hindi: पीना (pīna)
  • Nepali: पिउनु (piunu)
  • Gujarati: પીવું (pīvũ)

*Pō(i) also has “drink” descendants in other languages:

  • Latin: bibere
  • Italian: bere
  • French: boire
  • Spanish/Portuguese: beber
  • Romanian: bea
  • Greek: πίνω (píno)
  • Russian: пить (pit’)
  • Czech: pít
  • Croatian/Slovenian: piti
  • Polish: pić
  • Slovak: pit’

Even within English, there are several words which all go back to the root *pō(i):

  • Beverage
  • Beer (disputed origin)
  • Bib
  • Imbibe
  • Potion
  • Poison
  • Symposium

Once again, you wouldn’t even think that words as different as these are related, or that they have cousins in so many other languages!

That’s It!

I hope you’re not feeling too thirsty after reading all that…