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[uhn-der-toh] /ˈʌn dərˌtoʊ/
the seaward, subsurface flow or draft of water from waves breaking on a beach.
any strong current below the surface of a body of water, moving in a direction different from that of the surface current.
1810-20; under- + tow1
2. Undertow, underset, riptide are terms for a usually strong undercurrent in the ocean, contrary to the direction of surface water. Undertow and another nautical term, underset (a set or current contrary to the general set of the water, or contrary to the wind), came into notice early in the 19th century. The former is still in general use along the Atlantic coast; the latter now less well known. Rip, in use in the U.S. by the late 18th century, properly means a violently disturbed place in a body of water, usually by the meeting of opposing tides. Of recent years, in the form riptide, it has also been used, especially on the Pacific coast, to mean much the same as undertow, dangerous to bathers where heavy surf prevails. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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Examples from the web for undertow
  • Sometimes a small splash from the undertow of the tide of progress has to suffice.
  • Signs warned us of multiple-choice mishaps, from falling rock to a dangerous undertow.
  • He generated a cultural tsunami and then vanished into rock's familiar undertow of tragedy.
  • Good surfing conditions often mean riptides and strong undertow.
  • But he stopped quickly when he felt a tremendous undertow swirling around his legs.
  • To give the work a kind of motional undertow, of course.
  • His jokes, with their strong undertow of regret, accomplish the double whammy of annihilation and invigoration.
  • There is an inexorable psychological undertow pulling me away from a reckoning with something so painful.
  • But now, as predictable as the undertow after the wave, it's the backlash to the backlash.
  • But over the last twenty-four hours she had kept losing herself to an undertow of tears.
British Dictionary definitions for undertow


the seaward undercurrent following the breaking of a wave on the beach
any strong undercurrent flowing in a different direction from the surface current
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for undertow

1798, from under + tow (n.).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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undertow in Science
An underwater current flowing strongly away from shore. Undertows are generally caused by the seaward return of water from waves that have broken against the shore.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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Encyclopedia Article for undertow

a strong seaward bottom current returning the water of broken waves back out to sea. There is in fact no such current in a gross sense, for the overall flow of surface water toward the shore in a surf zone is very small. The water actually thrown up on the shore by breaking waves does flow back, however, and under certain circumstances this return flow may be experienced by swimmers as a strong current. Returning water may, for example, be channelized by the presence or form of obstacles on the bottom into rip currents of significant velocity but quite narrow lateral dimension. Also, since the volume of returning water varies with the size of the waves, the swimmer who waits for a low-water trough or a cycle of low waves before standing up to walk to shore may encounter the return flow from large waves just gone by and again experience a seemingly strong current

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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
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