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What is a fathom : an etymological reference

What is a fathom : a definition of the term

Undoubtedly, the word ‘fathom’ belongs to the group of terms that are practically not known to most modern readers. Therefore, the question: ‘what is a fathom ?’ can often occur when reading different books on the marine theme, such as various navigation and sailing textbooks, meteorological and geological reports, historical records, highly specialized enchiridions or even fictional novels about voracious pirates, knightly conquistadors, curious travelers and noble admirals. Obviously, virtually all enthusiasts of these themes and professional sailors, dispatchers, naval officers, and residents of large port cities are familiar with the meaning of the word ‘fathom’. For those of us who do not share this interest (a hobby or a profession) the question: ‘what is a fathom ?’ remains hypothetical. Of course, there is nothing mysterious in this situation and one should not feel uncomfortable if he/she does not know the use of this term. The language is an incredibly sophisticated and labyrinthine open system, which is able to change surprisingly fast and unpredictable. Hence, we should not be surprised by these linguistic characteristics. In fact, various naval terms were ubiquitously used during the time when the main mode of transport was shipping (both by the volume of traffic and by the number of passengers). Thereby, virtually all layers of the population were involved in the process of invention and evolution of the maritime terminology. Nowadays, we can hardly find the words ‘fathom’, ‘starboard’, ‘keel’ or ‘foremast’ even in the most complete engineering paper about various nuances of sailing and/or shipbuilding. Nevertheless, just a few decades ago every boy could list all the details of a sailboat without hesitation. The same linguistic situation has happened to virtually all samples of the terminology formation that is dedicated to horses, their breeding characteristics and caring for them. When these honorable creatures have served as the main drawing force, all terms, which are connected to this theme, have been applied widely. In our days, only professional equestrians, vets, farmers, jockeys or ordinary enthusiasts are familiar with the lion’s share of these specialized words. In fact, this is the primal rule of modern nostratic linguistic: only the ubiquitous and semantically capacious words remain in human memory. In truth, even those of readers who had never seen a horse knows the term ‘horseshoe’. However, the terms ‘snaffle-bit’ or ‘saddle-girth’ are quite poorly known outside the very narrow range of the public. Hence, we must admit that an extremely low popularity of the term ‘fathom’ is understandable and common. Thus, let us move on to the fundamental questions of this article: ‘what is a fathom ?’ and ‘what is the use of this term?’.

A fathom is a measure of length containing six (6) feet. In its turn, a foot is an equivalent to 30.48 cm. Hereby, it is quite easy to verify that a modern fathom measures the same measure of length as1.8288 meters. In general, the term ‘fathom’ finds its application in various cases when it is necessary to measure depth. Without a doubt, it is not a gross mistake to use this word in order to determine other measures, but its common usage is historically determined. Naturally, one can use this term in her book report, personal essay, homework task and/or critique, if it adds a demandable atmosphere or authenticity. Of course, one has to verify that her potential audience is familiar with this word. Undoubtedly, the situation in which half of the audience keep thinking: ‘what is a fathom ?’ without paying much attention to the rest of the report is quite unpleasing and totally undesirable. The author should always remember that the text, which is oversaturated with unnecessary and highly specialized terminology, dialect and/or slang words, could not satisfy the audience’s expectations. Of course, a standard research summary, which is dedicated to specific nuances of modern or ancient maritime terminology has to include such specific terms and locutions in an amount sufficient to clarify, observe and disclosure of the studied topic. However, a superabundance of some particularized terms is always objectionable because it leads to the loss of sense of semantic purity and lightness of style. Therefore, we have to accept the fact that the contemporary use of the term ‘fathom’ is significantly limited to a narrow range of scientific, ethnographic, engineering and/or navigational disciplines. Again, what is a fathom ? It is a specialized term, which is often used for determination of length in various mining and nautical spheres.

What is a fathom : the unusual and extraordinary uses of the term ‘fathom’

Obviously, the object of our study was most commonly used in the United Kingdom. In fact, in different remote corners of the globe, such as the Russian empire, the Spanish kingdom, the South America or the legendary Cathay, this word was practically unknown. Moreover, the term ‘fathom’ is not part of the international measurement system, which often causes regrettable misconceptions between citizens of countries in which are actively used different measurements systems. Hereby, one should not be surprised to witness a foreigner who is quite busy with a simple question: what is a fathom ? Apparently, this person comes from the country in which the meters, kilograms, and centners successfully replace the feet, pounds and stones. In order to categorize and classify various methods of using the word ‘fathom’ let us construct a concise register of various scientific disciplines and mundane spheres in which the term ‘fathom’ is still widely and gladly used. Here is a brief list of these methods:

  • Line length. For example, the main elements of a commercial angler’s setline were measured not in meters, but in fathoms. The rope, which was called a groundline, was used to create the primal line of a setline. It was usually provided in bundles of 300 fathoms. A single 50-fathom skein (300 feet or 91.4 meters) of this rope was referred to as a line.
  • The mining industry. For a quite long period of time, the term ‘fathom’ was widely used for measuring the depth of mines in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In fact, this term was implemented into the lexicon of ordinary miners by the employees from among the sailors and naval officers. Workers have found it quite useful and convenient in use, thus, this term was quickly installed in the contemporary spoken language. In addition, it also should be mentioned that the miners also used the term ‘fathom’ as a unit of area, which is equal to 6 square feet (approximately 0.56 square meters) in the plane of a vein.
  • The maritime terminology. Obviously, it is the main point of focus for this specific term. After all, more than two-thirds of the Earth is covered with water (approximately 362 million square km), and most of this square are contemporary inaccessible to direct visual researches. In truth, it is a poor cliché, but true nonetheless, to accept that our civilization knows more about Mars, a planet, which has the size of the Earth, but more than 400 million of kilometers away, than about our own oceans and rifts that are located just a few kilometers below the surface of the sea. The objection of measuring the topography of the underwater surface has been crucial in revolutionizing our comprehension of the evolution of our planet and bathymetry is now a perfect instrument of choice when mapping underwater areas, and seeking at their study, monitoring and management. Nowadays, different methods of underwater mappings, such as seafloor photographic, application of remote acoustic techniques, and geological sampling techniques are demanded as never before (nevertheless, some modern methods, such as airborne techniques of mapping are also well established and popular). In truth, apart from depth determination, some concrete echo-sounding location systems are quite useful for diverse scientific and economic purposes, such as geological survey to describe the ocean floor, geotechnical evaluation and resource value. The high-density and high-resolution data bathymetry is found to be economical since it endorses higher depth accuracies and coverage. In fact, in a great number of different particularized issues, scientists often use the term ‘fathom’ with an eye to mark some specific measures of the sea depths. Therefore, in our days the bathymetric industry is the most notable linguistic areal of the term ‘fathom’. Without a doubt, nowadays this word has significantly lost its practical value. However, it still finds its use not only in old-fashioned pirate novels but also in the spoken English language.
  • The last offices and burial ceremonies. One may often meet the particular locution: “six feet under the ground”. It is a quite ubiquitous expression that may be discovered in virtually all types of papers: fictional novels, private correspondence or even official documents. One can use these expressions even in a standard personal statement without running the risk of being caught in vulgarity or excessive sentimentality. However, few people know (obviously except linguists who are surely familiar with this term) that this expression is connected with the nautical term ‘fathom’. One fathom is equal to six feet. Conventionally, a body has to be buried at fathom’s depth according to the old tradition national traditions that were mixed with the Christian views on the principles of the burial of a dead body. In fact, a burial at sea also requires a minimum of fathom depth.

What is a fathom : an etymology of the term ‘fathom’ from the point of view of modern linguistic science

Undoubtedly, no one would dispute about the fact that the term ‘fathom’ has become a significant element of the modern English language. It is officially approved as a measure of length in all modern textbooks and sailing directions. Moreover, sailors prefer to use this term even in the everyday life, ignoring the other unit of length. Let us examine the history of this word using a modern case study analysis method with an eye to identifying the main stages in the formation of this word in the historical aspect. This simple operation allows us to clarify the etymology of this term and understand how it took its present form. After all, what could be the most valuable and appropriate answer to the question: ‘what is a fathom ?’ then the history of its occurrence, evolution, and semantic transformation?

It is possible to trace the history of the word ‘fathom’ to the Middle English word ‘fadome’, which comes from the Old English word ‘fæþm’. The meaning of these words is quite similar: the measure of the length of the outstretched arms. In addition, these words were used as nouns, such as womb, breast, and cubit. Additionally, we have to admit that in a great variety of different languages and cultures, there exist a considerable number of length units, which play the same role as the term ‘fathom’. For example, the Maltese language includes the term ‘qasba’, which is equivalent to 2 meters; the German language comprises the term ‘Faden’ that is practically equivalent to fathom (1.7 meters); the Swedish language contains the term ‘gamn’ – 1.784 meters and the Dutch language can boast of the quite reverberant word ‘vadem’ – 1.883 meters. Obviously, virtually all nations that have access to the sea and a commercial or military fleet have developed their own nautical terms. However, it is still possible to trace the history of each single term from its cultural invention and technological implementation to its present state. Hence, a great number of cultural, political and linguistic interconnections between these cultures or even civilizations assists us in understanding of the question: ‘what is a fathom from the standpoint of modern linguistic?’.

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