The word is drawn from the medieval Italian archi, meaning “chief ” or “principal,” and pelagus, Greek for gulf, pool, or pond, and perhaps influenced, if not corrupted by medieval Italian nomenclature for the Aegean Sea—egeopelagus. But hardly a pool or a pond, that archipelago is a formidable stretch of water with which Italian seafarers were, no doubt, familiar. They might well have known it as the medium for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca—long delayed by misfortune and enlarged by mythical island encounters. Archipelago is now somewhat loosely applied to either or both a body of sea that contains multiple islands and to the islands themselves. Archipelagoes are often—but not always—in proximity to a mainland, as with the Arctic islands, Alexander Archipelago, and Florida Keys. Because of the complexity of currents about the islands, the varying sizes and upper elevations of the islands, and commonly the abundance of shallows, bays, inlets, and estuaries along the coastlines, the islands in general function as rich nutrient sources and as nesting and resting places for migratory waterfowl, among other creatures. Archipelagoes typically have diverse floral and faunal activity and complex, sometimes unusual, biological inter-facings. Seen from the air, archipelagoes invite contemplation of Mandelbrot’s fractals, amplifying into ever-greater detail. The term has long inspired fantastical and metaphorical applications, as in Herman Melville’s Encantadas: “for the most part an archipelago of aridities, without inhabitant, history, or hope of either in all time to come.”

John Keeble