Middle English se, seo, from Old English sæ,"sheet of water, sea, lake, pool," from Proto-Germanic *saiwa- (source also of Old Saxon seo, Old Frisian se, Middle Dutch see, Dutch zee, German See, Swedish sjö), of unknown origin, outside connections "wholly doubtful" [Buck], and an IE etymon "has generally been doubted" [Boutkan]. The meaning "any great mass or large quantity" (of anything) is from c. 1200.
Germanic languages also use the more general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.1)), but have no firm distinction between "sea" and "lake," either large or small, by inland or open, salt or fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated. The two words are used more or less interchangeably in Germanic, and exist in opposite senses (such as Gothic saiws "lake, marshland," marei "sea;" but Dutch zee "sea," meer "lake"). Compare also Old Norse sær "sea," but Danish sø, usually "lake" but "sea" in phrases. German See is "sea" (fem.) or "lake" (masc.).
Boutkan writes that the sea words in Germanic likely were originally "lake," and the older word for "sea" is represented by haff. The single Old English word sæ glosses Latin mare, aequor, pontus, pelagus, and marmor. The range in the Old English word included "the expanse of salt water that covers much of the world" to individual great, distinctly limited bodies of water; it also was used of inland seas, bogs, lakes, rivers, and the Bristol Channel.
Meaning "dark area of the moon's surface" is attested from 1660s (see mare (n.2)); before the invention of telescopes they were supposed to be water. The phrase sea change "transformation," literally "a change wrought by the sea," is attested from 1610, first in Shakespeare ("The Tempest," I.ii). Sea legs, humorous colloquial term implying ability to walk on a ship's deck when she is pitching or rolling is from 1712. At sea in the figurative sense of "perplexed" is attested from 1768, from literal sense (in reference to ships) of "out of sight of land" (c. 1300).
updated on March 15, 2022