Principally applied to the largest of several forms of inlets of the sea— larger than bays, much larger than coves—gulfs are partially enclosed by usually extensive sweeps of land, as with the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, which produce an intricate interaction of eddies and back-currents. The term may also refer to a large, landlocked portion of sea with an opening through a strait or inlet, such as the Gulf of Boothia in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Gulf has several other, looser, and sometimes quasi-figurative applications, perhaps invited by its onomatopoetic quality—for instance, its use as a synonym for whirlpool, sinkhole, fiery volcanic opening, gorge, chasm, or abyss, as H. W. Longfellow suggests in Tales of a Wayside Inn: “The headlong plunge through eddying gulfs of air.”

John Keeble