How to Fathom the Fathom


Infrequently Answered Question #71: I get furlongs, knots, miles and naut­ical miles. Now then, what’s a fathom and a league?

A: A fathom is six feet. Or two yards if you’d prefer. Fathom comes from Middle English fathme, which comes from Old English faedm, meaning “outstretched arms” even though people were shorter back in the day and likely didn’t have six foot arm spans. All the same, though it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever ask you, a furlong is 110 fathoms and a mile is 880 fathoms.

Just like furlong, folks don’t much talk about ye olde fathom any more. Except to say something like, “That’s hard to fathom.” In which case fathom means understand rather than six feet. Though that meaning of fathom comes from the other meaning of fathom.

Sailors used to fathom the deep, that is they’d measure water depth under their ship. They did so with a weighted rope marked off in fathoms dropped over the side. In the open ocean the sea floor was often so deep their rope wasn’t long enough to touch bottom. In which case the depth was unfathomable, it couldn’t be meas­ured, it was hard to fathom. From there it was a easy step from if you fathom it, you knew it.

A league is three statute miles. It comes from medieval Latin leaga, a measure of distance. A league is another of those measures rarely used any more. About the only time you’ll run across it is in old writing. Like in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

A league is 2,640 fathoms. Not that the Light Brigade cared much about that. They had other things to worry about. File that under absolutely worthless information.

Filed 11/7/12

The Speed of Knots


Infrequently Answered Question #70: OK. You explained nautical mile. What’s this other term sailors use, knots?

A: Unlike statute miles and nautical miles, a knot is a speed and not a distance. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. Since a nautical mile is one minute of arc, a knot is one minute an hour. At the equator, that is.

Knot comes from the way they used to measure speed before they had speedometers. They did this with a log on the end of a rope, called the stuff line, which was marked at intervals with knots. They’d drop the log into the water and sail away from it. Speed was the number of knots paid out on the stuff line over a set time.

Landlubbers don’t have a single word for speed. We say miles-per-hour, mph. Maybe we could turn mph into a word, meph. Or mepah. Or mpah, pronounced pah with a silent M. But most places use kilkometers-per-hour, which would be keph. None of these have a nice ring to them in my estimation.

Perhaps we could take a page from flying where they have mach, the speed of sound named for Ernst Mach. So we might have land speed named after someone having to do with the steam locomotive or something. Instead of going 75 miles-per-hour you could be going 75 stephensons. Though stephenson, being three syllables, is no shorter than miles-per-hour. To keep it short and sweet we could make it 75 stephs.

Besides being unclear whether steph should be pronounced steve or steff, it wouldn’t be universal since most places go by kilometers. Any­way, we already have a speed word that would work on land, knots. We could use that, but it’d mean changing all car speedometers and speed limit signs. Seems hardly worth the bother.

Filed 11/5/12

Why Nautical Miles Are Longer than a Mile


Infrequently Answered Question #69: OK, a mile is eight furlongs. So then, why is a nautical mile longer than a mile on land?

A: Nautical miles are longer because sailors tend to exaggerate everything. Fish stories, tales of sirens, hippogriffs and “Ar-r-rh, matey, here be mon­sters.” Not being a sailor, I’ll give it to you straight. The nautical mile is not based on so many feet, or furlongs, where the mile on land is. Rather than an adding up, it’s a dividing down.

A nautical mile is one minute of arc at the equator. Which makes a nautical mile a subdivision of the circumfer­ence of the globe (1/21,600th) rather than a multiple of feet or what-have-you. As a result, a nautical mile is about 15% longer than a regular mile. I guess that was close enough so they called them both a mile. Confusing, perhaps, but so it goes. Why they couldn’t come up with a new word, I don’t know.

This is a little odd because sailors make up their own words for lots of other stuff. A floor is a deck, a rope is a line, a toilet is a head, a barrel of water is a scuttlebutt. Even left and right are port and starboard. Or the other way around, I never could get that straight. I suppose they do this just to confuse us landlubbers. If so, it works. I mean, what’s this lubbing they’re talking about us doing on land?

Filed 11/3/12

Why a Mile is an 5,280 Feet


Infrequently Answered Question #68: Why is a mile 5,280 feet rather than a nice round 5,000 feet or something?

A: It’s because a mile is based on X number of furlongs rather than so many feet or yards or whatever. The X number being eight. The word furlong comes from furrow-long, the length of a plowed field. Somehow, sometime a furlong was set as 660 feet. Eight furlongs make a mile. Eight times 660 feet is 5,280 feet, a mile.

Nobody outside of horse racing uses furlongs very much any more. In days of yore furlongs were more meaningful than miles to the average man on the street because most folks worked on farms and farm fields were measured in furlongs. So the average man on the street was in a field and not on the street, but we’ll not linger over that. Anyway, it was important for farmers to keep track of farmland measured in furlongs, but not so important to know how far it was from London to York measured in miles. So when they finally ironed out what a mile would be they based it on furlongs. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

It’s pretty hard for folks nowadays to relate to a furlong. We might be able to think in terms of football fields, which are 100 yards long, or 300 feet. Not counting the endzones. That’s a bit under half a furlong. A Canadian football field is 110 yards long, 330 feet. Which is exactly half a furlong. So a furlong is two Canadian football fields. And a mile is 16 Canadian football fields. Which might be relatable if you lived in Canada, except they mark their roads in kilometers. Before you ask, I must admit I have no idea how many football fields, either American or Canadian, there are in a kilometer.

Filed 11/1/12

Get ‘em While They’re Hot


Infrequently Answered Question #67: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

A: This puts me in mind of the old glass half empty or half full bit. Another way to look at it, an optimist says every cloud has a silver lining. A pessimist says what goes up must come down. At least, cliché spouting optimists and pessimists say these things. Below is an amusing bit from Zero Hedge on the two types, sans clichés.

Recently two noted Spanish econ­omists were interviewed. One was always an optimist and one was always a pessimist. The optimist droned on and on about how bad things were in Spain, the dire situation with the regional debt, the huge prob­lems overtaking the Spanish banks and the imminent collapse of the Spanish economy. In the end he said that the situation was so bad that the Spanish people were going to have to eat manure. The pessimist was shocked by the comments of his colleague who had never heard him speak in such a manner. When it was the pessimist’s turn to speak he said that he agreed with the optimist with one exception; the manure would soon run out.

Filed 7/19/12

Whatever Happened to Centigrade?


Infrequently Answered Question #66: I notice a lot of places use the Celsius scale for temperature while the US stays with Fahrenheit. Which do you like better?

A: The problem with both Celsius and Fahrenheit is negative numbers, tem­perature readings below zero. But how can anything be less than zero, less than nothing at all? Temperature is a measure of kinetic energy, motion of matter. But there can’t be less than no motion, negative motion.

Anyway, negative numbers make math tricky. That’s why scientists use the Kelvin scale where 0 degrees is absolute zero so there’s no negative numbers. Of course, if we went with Kelvin we’d have to adjust our per­ception of whether temperatures mean head for the beach or bundle up because it’s cold out there. The average temperature of the earth’s surface is 288° Kelvin. Which sounds pretty hot until you realize water freezes at 273° Kelvin.

Still, it occurs I haven’t answered the question. I prefer Fahrenheit. It’s more graduated, there’s more numbers between freezing and boiling. So you can be more accurate without getting into fractions of degrees. Plus, it has to get colder before you’re below zero. Somehow 20°F doesn’t sound as cold as -5°C. Plus, I’m used to Fahrenheit and there’s that old saw about old dogs and new tricks. File me under old dog.

Filed 4/24/12

…Which Starts with L Which Stands for Pound?


Infrequently Answered Question #65: Why is pound abbreviated ‘lb’ when there’s no L or B in the word?

A: It’s confusing because ‘lb’ is not an abbreviation for the word pound, but an abbreviation of a Latin word for weight, libra. In which case the abbreviation makes sense. Sort-of. The word pound derives from the Latin pondo, “by weight.” Why they took one Latin word for use and a different Latin word to abbreviate is something of a puzzle.

Libra also explains the symbol for British money, the pound. You know, £. It’s a script L with a crossbar for Libra. This is found on a computer keyboard at option-3. And shift-3 gets you a different pound sign, #. Well, sort-of a pound sign as it’s only a pound sign on a telephone. On a computer # stands for number, which is abbreviated ‘no.’ despite there being no O in number.

To go off on another tangent, the astrological symbol for Libra is not £ or # but a horizontal line with a hump in the middle over a straight line. Sort-of a pictogram of a balance scale. You won’t find that on a computer key­board so you’ll have to type out the word. On a telephone pad you’d have to dial 5-4-2-7-2 to spell libra. Then again, there’s no longer a dial on a phone to dial yet we say dial anyway.

Though you didn’t ask, here’s why ounce is abbreviated oz. even though there is no Z in ounce. It stands for the Italian onza, ounce. This comes from the Latin uncia, meaning one 12th, which is also the source of the term “inch.”

Filed 2/6/12

Love Them Bubble Cars


Infrequently Answered Question #64: What is the future of transportation?

A: It’s certainly not the jetpack or flying car. Some propose the future be rail. However the cost and energy returns of rail are pretty poor unless they’re running nearly full. Otherwise you’re hauling around a lot of air in heavy steel containers. Electrics? Too short a range. And anyway they’re really nothing more than an emissions relocation device.

I suggest the future of transpor­tation be motorcycles. Depending on the bike, you can get 80 miles to a gallon. Three or four times what you get with a car. There’d be a lot less congestion, too. So less gas wasted sitting idling in traffic jams. You might even be able to park it in the garage without getting rid of all the junk collectables in there now.

Then again, motorcycles are fairly dangerous and take some skill to ride. Plus the rider is exposed to the ele­ments. To solve those problems, let’s go with enclosed motor-tricycles. Not exactly a new idea, they had some­thing like them in post-war Europe. I say bring back the BMW Isetta, the Heinkel Kabine or any of these other bubble cars.

Make driving fun again. Or if not fun, at least funny-looking. With everyone in these, even if you get stuck in gridlock you can just look around and have a laugh. As a bonus, they look sort-of futuristic-ish. Like George Jetson’s flying car, only not flying.

Filed 1/16/12

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