Printable Version
Pronunciation: -dhêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, Verb

Meaning: 1. (Noun) The length of the outstretched arms or a nautical measure of 6 feet. 2. (Verb) To measure to the bottom with a fathom pole or line, as to fathom the depths of a pond, to plumb. 3. (Verb) To understand or comprehend completely; to get to the bottom of.

Notes: Before we discovered how to make rulers, tape measures, and such, we measured our lives and the things in them with ourselves. Foot and yard remain the names of official measurements so long as we avert the metric system, horses are measured in hands to the shoulder, a drink of scotch is measured by fingers, and races may be won by a nose, a hair, or the skin of your teeth. A fathom was originally the span from the tip of the fingers of one hand to those of the other with the arms outstretched.

In Play: A fathom is a measure downward, so while you cannot rise fathoms in someone's respect, you may move in the opposite direction: "Hans Oppenfriese plummeted fathoms in my esteem when he peculated the office coffee funds." Fathom, the verb, is very similar in meaning to plumb: you may fathom the depths of a river or of someone's intentions: "Mother, I fail to fathom the logic in forbidding me to wear 5 earrings in each ear when you wear 10 rings on each hand!"

Word History: Old English faethm "fathom" came from Proto-Germanic fathmaz, a predictable derivation of PIE pot-mo-s "a measure", since PIE [p] > [f] and [t] > [th] in the Germanic languages. In German, this word became Faden "thread, twine, yarn". Without the suffix -mo-s, the pot-/pet- "open the arms" turns up in Latin patere "to stand open", origin of English patent. With other suffixes it emerges in Greek petalon "leaf" (whence English petal) and patane "flat dish", from which Latin patina "platter" and English pan and patina derive. (Ages ago Larry Brady suggested this word when Dr. Goodword was Dr. Language at More recently, Lyn Laborial and Lew Jury thought of it when they read our Good Word twain. We thank them all for their love of words and their willingness to share theirs with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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