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Straightforward question. The Pacific Ocean is 太平洋【たい・へい・よう】 and the Atlantic Ocean is 大西洋【たい・せい・よう】. What was the reasoning in using a different character for the たい in each? And why for Pacific and for Atlantic?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

As the characters clearly suggest, 大西洋 simply refers to the big Western ocean. Not much confusion there.

太平洋, however, is an adaptation of the English "Pacific" Ocean. 太平 is a word in its own right that means roughly this: "peaceful" or "tranquil," or "pacific," if you will. According to the page linked at the bottom it had previously been known as 大東海.

It seems like 太 may be a simplified form of 泰, although apparently this isn't listed in all character dictionaries (note that here a person claims to have found it). The word 泰平 exists and is the same word as 太平, and based purely on shape it makes sense that one would be a 略字. So if this theory is to be believed then the 太 in 太平洋 does not mean thick/fat, but rather peace as in 泰平, because 泰 simplifies to 太, and is not to be confused with Thailand.

Lengthy discussion about it can be found here! http://homepage2.nifty.com/osiete/s539.htm

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That's an awesome explanation. How do people know these things? – Kirk Oct 21 '13 at 16:24
泰 is not simplified to 太. 泰 is used widely on its own in set expressions, and also with referral to Thailand. in fact, the character on its own would probably be an abbreviation for Thailand. – user54609 Oct 21 '13 at 17:21
Found this site where a person asks about finding it in "大漢和辞典" detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1316862793 – ssb Oct 21 '13 at 23:53
Another downvote here apparently. Explanation as to why? – ssb Oct 22 '13 at 15:35
@user54609 According to this dictionary, Chinese also used 泰平 in the past. images.gg-art.com/dictionary ② 安定平和 [peaceful] 泰,安也。——《字汇》 宇泰定者,发乎天光。——《庄子·庚桑楚》 泰而不骄,威而不猛。——《论语·尧曰》 以祈国泰民安。——吴自牧《梦梁录》 家贫躬耕,粟熟则食粟,…处之泰然也。——《元史·许衡传》 否泰如天地。——《玉台新咏·古诗为焦仲卿妻作》 如:泰日(天下太平的时代) 泰治(太平安定) 泰定(安定) 泰和(太平) 泰平(政教清平,国泰民安。即太平) 泰通(国泰政通) – marasai Oct 22 '13 at 17:45

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