- Attested in 1633, a knot measures the speed of ships at one nautical mile per hour, based on the number of knots on the log-line running out of the back of a ship, usually in a time period of half a minute
- Knot comes from Old English cnotta, itself originating in the Proto-Germanic *knutt-; knit is related
- A league first measured about 3 miles, later 3 nautical miles, perhaps initially based on the distance one could walk within an hour
- League is from Late Latin leuga, possibly Gaulish in origin
I’ve been in Laguna Beach for nearly two weeks and I think the ocean has already gotten to my head.
I’ve texted too many pictures (avec dog and sunset) to my family. I’m worried I’ve become “that guy” on Facebook.
I’ve got sand in my hair and ears, amongst other places, from my sad attempts in its waves. What is so peaceful from the shore is so powerful in its vast midst–and this, I believe, is the source of its sublime poetry.
I’m learning the ocean’s language. The breaking of waves, the timing of tides, groundswells, windswells. Beach reports come in on the radio, although I’m still convinced Minnesota has any ocean city beat when it comes to weather reporting.
I’m learning its lingo. I overheard a surfer say, “They were frothing for some surf.” The apt metaphor conveyed some fellow surfers’ eagerness for some waves.
So, with fathom fresh on the mind, let’s ride the wave. What about the companions of fathom, knot and league?
I’d make a bad sailor. And a bad boy scout and executioner, for that matter. I never really got knots. Bowlines and hitches? It’s Greek to me. Just look at this:
I can’t even keep my shoelaces fast fastened. But we will save praise for the loafer for another day. And putting on a tie always entails a pep talk. While it may chagrin my brother and Elliot Templeton to learn so, I never intend for my ties to look like a Van Wijk.
Nautically speaking, a knot is a measurement of speed for ships, planes, and winds, equalling one nautical mile per hour. According to the OED, a knot, first attested in 1633, refers to:
A piece of knotted string fastened to the log-line, one of a series fixed at such intervals that the number of them that run out while the sand-glass is running indicates the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour; hence, each of the divisions so marked on the log-line, as a measure of the rate of motion of the ship (or of a current, etc.).
And a log-line?
Sailors used to attach a spool of rope to a flat piece of wood, called a log, weighted as to float on the water, which was cast out the back of the boat. The rope would be knotted as described above, and sailors would count the number of knots in a period of time. (Thanks to Duane Cline, whose straight cyan background may betoken the web’s earlier days, but whose prose on this technical matter is beautifully lucid.)
Now, a good friend of mine was frothing for some more information on the distance between these knots. Froth no more, Matt. Well, keep frothing a little bit. The answer’s inexact.
According to Samuel Sturmy in 1669 in Mariners Magazine, as cited by the OED:
The distance between every one of the Knots must be 50 Foot; as many of these as run out in half a Minute, so many Miles or Minutes the Ship saileth in an Hour.
According to John Adam’s (not that one) 1772 translation of Antonio de Ulloa’s A Voyage to South America:
The distance between the knots on the log-line should contain 1/120 of a mile, supposing the glass to run exactly half a minute.
Supposing indeed, Señor Ulloa.
My friend figured the distance between the knots would be measured in fathoms. Well, Duane Cline does say the distance spanned 7 fathoms. About 42 feet. Close to the Sturmy’s 50 feet, and Ulloa’s 1/120th of a mile is indeed 44 feet.
And what about the word knot itself? It comes from Old English, cnotta, deriving, along with knit, from a Proto-Germanic stem *knutt-. Quoting Walshe’s Concise German Etymological Dictionary, Partridge notes of knot:
“Another puzzling word of the kno- series” of words “all meaning something hard, prominent and lumpy.”
Knuckle, knead, knob, knoll? Their relationships are unclear, and node, from Latin, may or may not be related.
What’s up with silent k, anyways? It used to be pronounced. So, Old English cnotta would sound something like kuh-not-uh. As the ever wonderful program, A Way with Words, teaches us, the loss of this sound is called apheresis, Greek for “taking away”:
What motivates such a change? Probably economy, and sometime around the end of Middle English. Speech likes efficiency, doncha know?
I admire those folks who abandon books that fail to engage them. With so much to read in this wide world, why not? Sure, this may be anathema to our more literary principles, which champion the virtues of slogging through dusty doorstops. Alas, I’ve always felt a commitment to a work, like entering into some kind of longterm relationship with it. Too proud in my perseverance? Perhaps.
But I have bailed on a few, I must admit. Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. (I was not in the right place to be reading it, and it was surprisingly chronological and narrative, when I was expecting something a bit more discursive.) Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (I did not have the best translation, and I don’t recommend picking it up right before bedtime in the middle of a Minnesotan winter.) And Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (I was too young when I picked it up, in spite of its stature as a adventure classic.)
And with the latter, I think it was ultimately the language that stymied me. Speaking of which, what the hell is a league?
Let’s consult the OED again. A league is:
An itinerary measure of distance, varying in different countries, but usually estimated roughly at about 3 miles; app. never in regular use in English, but often occurring in poetical or rhetorical statements of distance. marine league n. unit of distance = 3 nautical miles or 3041 fathoms.
The Online Etymology Dictionary glosses that this distance is “perhaps an hour’s hike.” Historical linguists trace the word back to the Late Latin leuga, with cognates including French’s lieue, Spanish’s legua, and Italian’s lega, among others. Roman writers are said to have attributed the ultimate origin to the Gauls. It’s an old word, too, attested in the 14th century.
But, according to Geology.com:
The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is the deepest known point in Earth’s oceans…at 10,994 meters (36,070 feet) below sea level.
So, Monsieur Verne, 20,000 leagues? That would be about 316,800,000 feet. Or 52,800,000 fathoms. We’ve got a few puns to work with here: Unfathomable, beleaguering, tied up in knots?