If you came across a display of this Windex glass cleaner on a store shelf, how would you interpret the smaller label — the one that says "100% Ocean Bound Plastic"?
I admit to experiencing some bemusement when reader Dan Freiberg of Minneapolis sent me the photo in an email headed "Environmental Concern." He wrote: "To me, this doesn't mean what I think SC Johnson" — parent company of Windex — "wants it to mean."
To Dan and me — and, it turned out, to other people as well — "ocean bound plastic" suggests the plastic bottle is headed — bound — for the ocean. Which would be a bad thing.
I had a follow-up speculation: Maybe the bottle had been manufactured from plastic pellets retrieved from the sea, where they'd been attached to — bound up with — sodium chloride molecules or kelp?
Neither of my guesses was correct, but it took me a while to figure that out. Along the way, I traveled down some forking etymological paths in pursuit of the multiple meanings of bound.
First, though, the solution to the Windex puzzle. What Windex and other companies are doing, it turns out, is preventing plastic from heading out to the ocean. In a section of the Windex website headlined "Help Seas Sparkle," the company boasts that in 2020, it "plans to recycle 1400 metric tons of ocean bound plastic … helping stop more plastic from reaching our seas." (A hyphen in the compound adjective ocean-bound is called for here.) A Danish organization called Ocean Bound Plastic clarifies that ocean-bound plastic is land based, whereas ocean-waste plastic is retrieved from waterways and then recycled. All clear now?
The organization and the campaign may be new, but bound is a very old word with many origins and senses. It's an excellent example of what linguists call polysemy: the state of having multiple meanings. (The accent in polysemy falls on the second syllable: pah-LISS-im-mee.)
The adjectival bound in "ocean-bound plastic" came into English around 1175 from an Old Norse source, búinn, that meant "ready" or "prepared." The meaning shifted, around 1400, to "destined" or "intending to go," as in "homeward bound" or "outward bound" or — as in the title of this column — "bound for glory" (that is, headed for heaven). During the 1800s, this bound acquired a colloquial or dialectal sense of "certain to" or "about to," as in "the weather s bound to improve."
An even older bound — unrelated except for spelling — goes back to the 10th century. This bound is the past tense of the verb "to bind"; their source is an Old English verb, bindan, whose past tense was band. A bond is something that binds a body — shackles, for example — or two or more people, such as a deed or legal covenant. In the 1550s, hidebound referred to cattle so emaciated their skin (hide) appeared bound to their bones; in the 1600s it acquired the figurative sense of "restricted by narrow opinions."
Fast-forward to the late 1200s — well, it was probably slow-forward back then — and we bump up against yet another bound, this one adapted from an Old French source, bonde, which meant "limit" or "boundary stone." By the 1600s, English-speakers were mostly using the expanded form boundary for this sense, although we've retained the old word bound in the construction out of bounds, which originally referred to limits placed on students in schools and later to "not within the playing area" in sports.
In the mid-16th century, a new bound bounded into English. Same spelling, yet another French ancestry: the verb bondir, which may have come from the onomatopoetic Latin word bombus, "a buzzing noise." (As you've probably deduced, bombus also gave us bomb.) In keeping with its buzzy origins, this bound originally meant only "to resound"; it was Shakespeare, in his 1593 poem "Venus and Adonis," who first used it with the sense "to leap" or "to spring upward." Shakespeare liked the word enough to use it again in Henry V (1616): "He bounds from the earth, as if his entrails were hares."
If you've been keeping count, that's four senses of bound with a single spelling and four distinct etymologies. What about abound, the verb meaning "to be in great plenty"? Fooled again! Abound came into English in the early 1300s from Old French abonder, which has no binding ties to the bondir we met earlier. Abonder comes from Latin ab- (off, away from) plus undare (to rise in a wave — compare "undulate"); the sense is "overflowing."
And on that rising wave we point our little boat back to our original ocean-bound. Five varieties of bound, five distinct origin stories. English, I'm bound to admit with unbounded admiration, is truly a language of abundance.