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.

Origin of undertow

First recorded in 1810–20; under- + tow1

Synonyms for undertow

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.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Related Words for undertow

undercurrent, eddy, vortex, whirlpool, riptide

Examples from the Web for undertow

Contemporary Examples of undertow

Historical Examples of undertow

  • He was almost within her reach, when the undertow swept him back.

  • So swift was the undertow that Powder River was dragged from beneath its rider.

    The Fighting Edge

    William MacLeod Raine

  • You will be flung on the holme by that undertow on the lee side.

    Viking Boys

    Jessie Margaret Edmondston Saxby

  • The undertow writhed about their legs, jerked at them wrathfully.

  • He got ashore after havin' been knocked down and dragged in four times by the undertow.

    On the Frontier

    Bret Harte

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

Word Origin and History for undertow

1798, from under + tow (n.).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

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 © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.