Around the Black Sea, spelling bees can be political events, so a word on my use of language is in order.
The chapter titles in this book are some of the many names by which the sea has been known. The earliest ancient Greek name, Pontos Axeinos (the dark or somber sea), may have been adopted from an older Iranian term. It may also have reflected sailors' apprehension about sailing its stormy waters, as well as the simple fact that the water itself, because of the sea's great depth, appears darker than in the shallower Mediterranean. How that name was transformed into the Pontus Euxinus (the welcoming sea) of later Greek and Latin writers is uncertain. Perhaps the irony was intentional; perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
The most common name in Byzantine sources was simply Pontos (the sea), a usage that made its way also into Arabic texts as bahr Buntus, which amounts to the intriguingly redundant Sea Sea. But many other names were in use in the Middle Ages, especially in Arabic and Ottoman writings, and were often associated with particularly prominent cities, whence Sea of Trabzon and Sea of Constantinople. The designation Great Sea also appears in the Middle Ages in various forms, including the Italian Mare Maius and Mare Maggiore. Still other names were derived from whichever group happened to be dominant around the coasts at any particular time—or whichever group an author wanted his reader to think was dominant. Hence, labels such as the Scythian Sea, the Sarmatian Sea, the Sea of the Khazars, of the Rhos, of the Bulgars, of the Georgians, and others. In Arabic sources, the Mediterranean was, by contrast, the Sea of the Romans (that is, of the Byzantines).
Compared to all these, Black Sea is rather young, at least as a widely accepted name. It appears in early Ottoman sources in various forms, and was perhaps in colloquial usage from very early in Ottoman history. Its first appearance in a west European language comes at the end of the fourteenth century, but it did not receive broad currency until three centuries later. Before then, European labels were mainly adaptations of those of the classical age, such as Pontus and Euxine in English, terms that still have poetic connotations which the pedestrian Black Sea lacks. “Like to the Pontic sea, whose icy current and compulsive course ne'er feels retiring ebb …, ” says Shakespeare's enraged Othello, “even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, shall ne'er look back. …”